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.
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."