Previous Months' Topics

Exorcism - The Inside Story

The U.S. Bishops just had a conference on exorcism – this book puts the often misunderstood rite in perspective.

Exorcism has gotten a bad name from Hollywood, says author Matt Baglio, who has written a sober, well-researched eyewitness report on the Catholic practice of expelling demons. Rare are the dramatic scenes of spinning heads and floating tables, he claims. Exorcisms most often take place in routine church settings and involve a half hour of prayer and spiritual direction.

In The Rite – The Making of a Modern Exorcist (Doubleday Religion), Baglio tells the story of Father Gary Thomas, a California priest who travels to Rome to take a course in exorcism at the behest of his bishop. The story is compelling for none of the reasons that moviegoers would expect, yet the book is being made into a movie that will be released in January, starring Anthony Hopkins.

Baglio, 37 years old, admits that he was more of a cultural Catholic when he started researching the book, but has now taken his faith more seriously. Born in San Diego, he is now a journalist in Rome, where he lives with his wife and their child. He corresponded with Fathers for Good about his book and his faith.

Fathers for Good: What is the thing that most surprised (or shocked) you during the research and writing of The Rite?

Baglio: I had most of my preconceptions reversed in writing this book. First, I was surprised that not that many priests knew much about the reality of exorcism. The priest I interviewed for the book, Father Gary Thomas, told me that he hadn’t been taught anything about demons or demonic possession in the seminary.

The other surprise was the relative frequency with which exorcisms are performed. This isn’t something that happened a long time ago, but is an everyday occurrence. The exorcists I followed in Rome had waiting rooms and would sometimes see ten people a day. Usually, though, they would only spend around 20 to 30 minutes with each person.

I saw one exorcism which I detail in the book in which a woman’s personality completely changed and she began speaking in a gruff and guttural voice. She struggled so hard that she bent the legs of a metal chair. But this is rare. The majority of cases are mild and the only reaction a person may have is to cough. 

FFG: Some people will have an unhealthy interest in or undue fear of this topic. Did you attempt to control the hysteria in the book?

Baglio: I tried to write the book in as straightforward a manner as possible and just let the material speak for itself. Most people are afraid of the unknown, and my goal was to pull back the veil and educate people about the real-life experiences of an exorcist in training. It’s actually quite an uplifting book in the end because it is about the power of prayer and the desire to help people. The book is also very balanced and discusses the opinions of the scientific community and anthropologists as well. The goal was to write as thorough a book as possible in an informative and journalistic style, not to scare people. In fact I had many of my own fears reversed the more I researched the topic.

FFG: Did you believe in the devil before getting into this book project?

Baglio: I would say that the devil was never on my radar, but like most Catholics I still had this wariness about the topic of evil. I think I am more respectful of evil but I wouldn’t go so far to say that I am convinced the devil is behind all these problems that people claim are caused by an evil spirit. I will say that there is more to exorcism than just fakers and weak-minded people and this book really helped me to understand that exorcism is more about a person making the right choices. I felt comforted by the fact that at the end of the day, even if evil exists, the choice to open a doorway to it is entirely up to us.

When I finished writing the book I came to the conclusion that in a few instances there is clearly something going on here that defies scientific explanation. Maybe in 50 years we’ll know more about what is going on, but as of today even skeptics admit that we don’t have all the answers.

FFG: Talk about this rite in relation to the sacraments.

Baglio: What is interesting about exorcism is that it is a sacramental, not a sacrament. As such it doesn’t carry as much weight in the Church as say the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For me this was really what helped to put exorcism in context. Exorcism is more about an individual’s personal relationship with God. Has he or she done things to cut off or weaken that relationship? In extreme cases, the Church says a person can distance him or herself so much from God that a demon can “take possession” of them. However, it’s said that this can be avoided by a person practicing their faith. So in the bigger picture, the sacraments are much more important than an exorcism. In fact, this is really the driving principal behind an exorcism and something I discuss at length in my book.