NEW ORLEANS — Father Gary Thomas has served for the past 12 years in the Diocese of San Jose, California, as the priest authorized to perform the rite of exorcism.
The rite is the Catholic Church’s largely hidden and often-misunderstood ministry of healing that Hollywood has transformed into a cash cow of blood, gore and fantasy.
The reality, Thomas told priests attending the 2017 Louisiana Priests’ Convention in September, is that movie producers have only part of the story correct. Yes, there is “intelligent evil” or satanic demons in the world that can and do take possession of a person in ways that defy medical or psychiatric therapy.
But movies often fail to track reality by ignoring the cautious and meticulous approach the church uses in extending its healing ministry to those who believe they are possessed by demonic spirits, Thomas said.
“The ministry of exorcism and deliverance is a ministry of healing,” he told the priests. “It is not the drama of Hollywood, although there is drama. This is primarily a ministry of healing. We have a responsibility as church to provide pastoral care.
“Jesus had two parts to his public ministry: He taught and he healed. Very often, information about exorcism is limited to the images we see on the screen. Many of those images and scenes I very often come in contact with. Every person who comes to seek out assistance in this area is suffering. That’s what makes this a holy ministry.”
Utilizing a team of advisers, including three married couples, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, Thomas uses a step-by-step, collaborative, investigative process in an attempt to identify “the root cause” of the person’s suffering. The early stage of questioning targets any possible medical, emotional, psychological or psychiatric issues that may be the cause.
Thomas said 80 percent of the people for whom he has performed exorcisms have been sexually abused.
In most dioceses, the bishop is informed about the need for an investigation, Thomas said, and the bishop will authorize one of the diocese’s mandated exorcists, with his team of experts, to visit the person “and ask a lot of questions to get to the root cause of what their suffering is.” Even before a decision is made to perform a formal rite of exorcism, the priest can offer “prayers of deliverance,” often called “minor exorcisms.”
Also, Thomas said, the person may not be suffering from possession by “intelligent evil” but may be suffering from “unforgiven sin or unforgiveness or rage or lust or hopelessness or fear. You can break those ties in confession.”
Only when the exhaustive questioning convinces the team that a person may be under demonic possession is the decision made to perform the rite, the priest said.
Thomas, who is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Saratoga, California, has performed more than 50 solemn rites of exorcism during his tenure in San Jose, and his ministry led him to become the subject of a book, “The Rite,” which later became a movie starring Anthony Hopkins.
The best advice Thomas has for priests who encounter someone believed to be suffering — whether from a mental condition or evil spirits — is not to dismiss them but to intently listen.
“A lot of times priests are skeptical or don’t know what to do, and they dismiss them,” he said. “Satan loves to isolate. If people use the ‘e’ word (exorcism) or the ‘d’ word (demons), do not run for the hills. We have nothing to fear. Christ has already won the war. Even if you are skeptical, listen to them.”
Some of the important questions he asks are how long the person has been afflicted and if he or she has dabbled in practices such as tarot card reading, black magic, white magic or “cleansing.” Even yoga, “used for purposes other than the purpose of exercise,” can be an open door to an evil spirit, he said.
“These are all pagan and all against the First Commandment,” Thomas said. “You cannot be a witch or a wiccan and be a Roman Catholic.”
Extreme care is taken with the actual rite of exorcism. Thomas never performs an exorcism during the work or school day but begins the rite at 5 p.m. The church is locked, and the team anoints the doors and the stained-glass windows with chrism. The subject of the demonic condition is anointed with the sacrament of the sick. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed. The rite starts with the litany of the saints, followed by Scripture readings and the renewal of baptismal promises. Then prayers are intoned declaring the authority of Christ over demonic spirits.
“What makes an exorcism never completely orthodox depends on the reaction of the demonic spirits,” Thomas said.
In some cases, he has seen signs of prolonged physical illness and nausea in the possessed person that almost defy belief.
“Satan wants to stay hidden,” he said. “The greatest lie is that Satan has convinced people that he doesn’t exist. The prime role of the priesthood is that we are healers of souls. In this ministry, we are in spiritual warfare. I used to think I wasn’t comfortable with that term because it didn’t seem very Catholic, but I realize spiritual warfare takes many forms. Just because we can’t see something or measure something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
“However, the good news is that from the moment Jesus died on the cross, Satan lost. The battles go on, but the war’s been won. Christ is the exorcist.”
Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.