Just prior to the November 2010 meeting of the United States bishops in Baltimore, Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois announced he would host a two-day conference on exorcism. More than 50 bishops and 60 priests registered to attend. Paprocki explained he wanted to bring attention to a badly needed ministry in the American Church.
Father Gary Thomas is the exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, California, and the subject of the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which inspired the new movie The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins. Father Thomas spoke to CWR about exorcism, demons, and the power of the sacraments.
CWR: First of all, what is an exorcist? What does he do?
Father Gary Thomas: An exorcist is a Catholic priest or a bishop who is involved in using the name of Christ to break a relationship between a demon and a human being.
What does that involve?
Father Thomas: Well, an exorcist has to discern carefully the experiences of the person who claims a diabolical attachment and then determine whether or not anything satanic is present. So when people come and say, “I need an exorcism,” I don’t just start praying the rite.
How do exorcists see their position within the Church?
Father Thomas: It’s a very important ministry, a very dangerous ministry, and it’s a ministry that takes an incredible amount of time, energy, and personal sacrifice. We see ourselves in a healing ministry. That’s what this is.
How does one become an exorcist, and what training is involved?
Father Thomas: The bishop has to appoint you. It’s that simple. The Church needs to create a formation/training process in the USA. Right now, all we have is a yearly conference. The course I took was in Rome, and then I trained under an exorcist for three months. In the US, we have none of that.
Nationally, how many exorcisms are performed each year?
Father Thomas: No idea. I can tell you that in Italy there are about 500,000 exorcisms.
How many have you actually performed?
Father Thomas: In five years, I’ve probably met with 100 people. I’ve performed 40 exorcisms on about five of them. I see lots of people, and a lot of times, it’s mental health stuff. I have a psychologist, psychiatrist, a medical doctor, and two priests on my team. So we’re very deliberate about all this.
What is the difference between diabolic harm or oppression and diabolic possession?
Father Thomas: Possession refers to complete takeover of a body by a demon. Oppression and obsession are lesser degrees of diabolical involvement or intrusion. There’s another category I call diabolical harassment, where there’s not been any kind of demonic intrusion into someone’s body, but more of a harassing spirit.
Obsession would be where people would be very, very depressed, and feel very heavy and have a sense that there’s some evil around or within them. These people have very obsessive thoughts having to do with the demonic that they can’t be really freed from. That’s the stuff you have to tease out.
So I first ask questions and trace back events to when things started. We talk about life experiences and their background. A demon doesn’t just show up; he has to be invited in.
What about curses?
Father Thomas: When people say to me, “I’ve had a curse put on me,” I’ll ask, “What do you know about it?” “I don’t know anything.” “Do you know someone who knows how to do that?” “No.” “Has anyone ever come to you and threatened to put one on you?” “No.” Well, then I think the chances of a curse are really next to none.
I have had people tell me lots of things about the people who have put curses on them; they claim the person is a witch, this person did certain things to them, that person threatened to do certain things to them. That’s different. But if you have no way of knowing anything, I just don’t automatically assume that it is a curse.
How prevalent are the various forms of obsession and possession in Catholic families today?
Father Thomas: There really are no statistics. It’s like going to the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s a public ministry, but it’s celebrated privately. What I can tell you is that there are more and more Catholics involved in idolatrous and pagan practices. That’s really why there’s more demonic activity. There’s the absence of God in the lives of a lot of people.
A lot of parents today have no critical eye of faith with which to even recognize the dangers their children are in. A lot of this is going on with the Internet. There are lots and lots of demonic websites.
How does one protect himself and his family from satanic influences?
Father Thomas: If you have a strong faith life, a strong prayer life, and a strong sacramental life, then you have nothing to worry about.
Could you describe the exorcism process for us? When preparing for an exorcism, what do you bring, and how would you set up the room?
Father Thomas: The tools are very simple: holy water, stole, book of deliverance, a crucifix, the rite of exorcism, and that’s it. And we just use the reconciliation room, with three chairs and a lit candle. I try to be very discreet with anybody who comes in, and so does my staff. Only staff who need to know are told anything. I always do the exorcisms with at least one other priest present.
Have you ever engaged a demon in conversation in exorcism?
Father Thomas: Not other than, “What’s your name?” and, “In the name of Jesus, get out!”
Have you ever encountered Satan himself?
Father Thomas: Once or twice, or at least what appeared to be Satan, because he identified himself as such.
Have you ever been frightened by a demon during an exorcism?
Father Thomas: No. I’m not frightened. I give them a certain amount of respect because they’re more powerful than me alone. The only thing that makes me unafraid is having Christ on my side. If I didn’t have Christ, I would be afraid, but God is more powerful than any demon.
How do you know if the exorcism really worked? How do you prevent the demon from returning?
Father Thomas: Once the manifestations stop, that doesn’t necessarily mean the demon has departed. You continue the exorcism prayers for a time. That might mean the person comes back again because demons try and hide, by trying to convince the exorcist they have gone away. Demons enter through the senses—the eyes, the ears, the mouth, and the nose. I can tell through the eyes. I can see the presence. It is as if the eyes of a person look like they have Coke bottle-like contact lenses; there is a presence within the presence. But the demons are very devious, and they want to hide, and so I just continue to look at the eyes of the person after the manifestations have stopped, because sometimes it’s just a ploy.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned in the course of doing an exorcism?
Father Thomas: I think simply the presence of a pure spirit and its power.
What happens to those who are possessed yet never get help?
Father Thomas: If they don’t get help, they’ll simply continue to deteriorate, both physically and mentally, not just psychologically.
In your battles against demons and Satan, what is your greatest weapon?
Father Thomas: It would be Christ, the invocation of Christ. That would be my greatest weapon.
How would you respond to someone who says all you need is to use the name of Jesus?
Father Thomas: I think it takes more than just saying, “In name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave.” We have a rite that’s recognized, even by the demons, as legitimate. Spontaneous prayers of deliverance are not the same thing as the official rite of exorcism.
What are the ways that demons gain access to souls?
Father Thomas: Well, they don’t get access to souls, they gain access to bodies. The involvement in pagan, satanic, or occult practices are the classical ways.
If a person suffered from physical or sexual abuse, and if they are also involved with things like the occult, the chances of something demonic or something of the spiritual realm affecting them increase. Because you’re tapping into the spiritual realm, and if you have a soul wound, you’re taking a risk.
Pornography is a doorway. But addictions of any kind can be—not are, but can be—a doorway, but it’s coupled with other things. For instance, drug use alone isn’t going to invite the demonic in, but coupled with the occult it could.
Is the occult satanic?
Father Thomas: Not in and of itself, but it’s opening a doorway. It’s tampering in the spirit world, and you do not know who’s going to show up. So when someone gets into Wicca, black magic or white magic, psychics, séances, Tarot cards, spells, or all that other idolatrous stuff, they don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re tapping into a realm they know nothing about, most of the time.
Who is most likely to become possessed?
Father Thomas: More often than not, it’s women. I think women have much more of an affective sense to them, where they’re much more open to the spiritual than men are. Again, that’s an opinion. But in my experience, most people who come to me—and this is not an opinion—are women, probably 70 percent.
In your experience, is it a problem that priests and even some in the episcopate no longer seem to believe in Satan?
Father Thomas: I think so…I’m not knocking the Second Vatican Council, but a lot of things in the formation of priests just disappeared following the Council.… The categories of sin have become very blurred, and so it doesn’t surprise me that the whole notion of Satan has become blurred, because the two are related. But I would remind anybody, look at the cross. The paschal mystery is why we continue to gather as a Church. If there’s no Satan, then the cross is a hoax, because that’s why Jesus Christ came, to defeat Satan, who made his presence known in the Book of Genesis and manifested himself as a serpent. If there’s no Satan, the whole economy of salvation is up for grabs. Why did Jesus come? He came because humanity had fallen from grace, and Satan had a stranglehold on the world.
We don’t see Satan face-to-face in all the calamities involving upheaval in the world in the same way as when someone has a diabolical attachment that is manifesting. People don’t see the demon because the demon is a pure spirit. But they must be blind if they don’t see what’s going on in the world around them and see that Satan is at the heart of much of the tumult in the world.
As an exorcist, I see the response of demons to sacramentals such as the crucifix or holy water or even the presence of a priest. The Eucharist will send possessed persons right over the edge. That’s the amazing thing. I tell the people in my parish, if demons believe in the Real Presence, shouldn’t we? I’m telling you, I’ve brought the Blessed Sacrament [to exorcisms], and the people want to go jumping out windows. It’s not them, it’s the demons.
How many exorcists do we have in the US?
Father Thomas: There are probably two dozen.
If, according to canon law, every diocese is supposed to have an exorcist, why do we have so few?
Father Thomas: My opinion is that bishops have been largely skeptical, because they don’t know who to appoint or know the criteria for how to appoint, or in some cases are ambivalent about the reality of Satan. Some are afraid of [deciding] who to appoint and how to go about appointing them. And I think that’s fair; I don’t think that’s a criticism. I don’t think that many bishops in the country know what’s involved…. Some do because we’ve told them, but when my bishop appointed me, he didn’t realize what it was really going to entail. And I know in talking with others, they didn’t know either.
If you compare the former rites of the Church with their revisions (blessings, baptisms, etc.), you notice that in times past, prayers against Satan were a more common feature. Has their removal had any real, practical effects, and if so, what are they?
Father Thomas: I can tell you that in the old rite of exorcism, the prayers have much more punch to them than the prayers of the new rite. And quite honestly, none of those [who actually do exorcisms] were ever consulted [about the revision], which I thought was amazing. How you would change prayers and not even talk to the experts who use the prayers all the time?
What brings joy to the demons?
Father Thomas: Look at the world and the kinds of behaviors and attitudes people hold toward personal conduct, how they treat their spouses, neighbors, children, and coworkers. Look at heads of states declaring war or acting dictatorially and oppressing people. I think whenever people are involved in what is ungodly, Satan is happy. And, of course, the allegiance to self. It goes back to Adam and Eve, when the serpent said, “Eat the fruit and you will become like gods.” This is one of our biggest problems in the world today.
In summary, what would you say to our readers?
Father Thomas: Don’t be afraid of Satan. Respect the power of evil only insofar as it does exist and it has limited power, but to remember Christ is more powerful than anything satanic.
Brian O’Neel writes from Wisconsin. This article appears in the February 2011 issue of CWR.