The Return of the Catholic Exorcism

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Foaming at the mouth, rolling of the eyes, assuming serpentine characteristics in the face or body: all classic signs, explains Father Gary Thomas, of demonic influence.

Father Thomas, pastor of the Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, California, is an avid Giants fan and a 28-year veteran of the priesthood. He is also a practicing exorcist; in the fall of 2005, Father Thomas traveled to Rome to complete a year-long training course under the tutelage of a master Italian exorcist. The story of his training inspired The Rite, a Warner Brothers film starring Anthony Hopkins that opens in theaters Friday.

Despite this fictional portrayal, Father Thomas is also the embodiment of a new trend in the American Catholic church: Long the purview of American cinema, Catholic exorcism is being reclaimed, publicly, by its real-life practitioners. A factual account of Father Thomas's training has been published in a book by journalist Matt Baglio; the Discovery Channel recently announced the airing of a reality show featuring the accounts of trained Catholic exorcists (though the Vatican has denied any official involvement with the series); and last November, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois convened a two-day conference to discuss the practice of exorcism within the Catholic Church.

"If a priest has the power to cast out demons, that's a lot of power."

The Catholic Church does not maintain official statistics on exorcisms. Yet Bishop Paprocki estimates that there are only around 30 priests in the United States qualified to perform the Rite of Exorcism, and he argues that these priests must contend with a growing number of exorcism requests.  The exorcism conference included sessions devoted to canon law and the dangers of an improperly performed exorcism, and the bishop hopes to eventually create a network of exorcists that extends across the United States. He also envisions the establishment of a formal program to train the next generation of exorcists. "The priests who have this responsibility get exorcism requests from all over the country," he explains. "We want to prevent these priests from being overburdened."

Roughly a quarter of active bishops in the United States registered for the event, underscoring a growing interest in the Rite of Exorcism--a ritual that has remained, among American Catholics, relatively obscure. Historically, Catholics in the United States have been concerned with successfully assimilating into a majority-Protestant culture, explains Mathew Schmalz, a Professor of Religion at the College of the Holy Cross. They began to distance themselves from religious practices that came across as odd or out of place: the 1949 exorcism that inspired the 1970's film The Exorcist, for example, was the last to be held in the archdiocese of Washington, D.C.  

Today, however, broader changes within the church's leadership and its flock have brought attention back to the ritual. Many of today's Catholic worshippers are drawn from immigrant communities with a strong tradition of religious exorcism, explains Schmalz, and their members are accustomed to seeking priestly assistance with the expulsion of satanic influences. He believes that the movement also stems from an effort to reclaim the centrality and distinctiveness of the priest's role. "There is a feeling that priests' lack of specialness is among the reasons for a decline in interest in joining the priesthood," he says. "If a priest has the power to cast out demons, that's a lot of power."

Father Thomas, however, points to more insidious forces: he views the rising demand for exorcisms as a consequence of increased involvement in the occult. And once the door has been opened to satanic influence, he warns, it is both difficult and dangerous to close. An improperly trained exorcist can place both himself and his charge in great peril: "As a cardinal rule you never talk to demons," he says. "Demons are, by their nature, devious, and they lie. They can engage you in all kinds of conversation to throw you off track."

The priest recently conveyed this advice to Anthony Hopkins, one of the stars of The Rite--a film that joins a long tradition of dramatic fictionalized depictions of the church's battles with the devil. Yet the reality of Catholic exorcism, cautions one Pennsylvania-based priest, is far more banal. "The worst people do is growl or make noise," he says, "although I had one client who repeated the first three lines of 'Hickory Dickory Dock' over and over again--and that drove me crazy."

Rather than a spectacle of spinning heads and violent tantrums, he says, a true exorcism does not necessarily lend itself to the big screen; the real torment and suffering is internal. 

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Christina Koningisor is a writer based in New Haven.

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