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The rite

Niklaus Manuel Deutsch's "Demons Tormenting Antonius," 1520.
By Matt Baglio
Published: 2009-05-03

he word exorcism usually conjures up images made popular by Hollywood films — girls contorting in agony, their heads spinning 180 degrees while they laugh maniacally and curse in a gruff, demonic voice. Who can forget the scene of Linda Blair shooting split-pea-soup vomit into the face of the exorcist as he leaned over her? The reality of exorcism is very different, something I'd find out for myself in the winter of 2007 when I agreed to witness an exorcism firsthand.

At the time I was doing research for a non-fiction book I was writing on the subject ("The Rite: The Making of a Modern Day Exorcist"), the story of an American priest, Father Gary Thomas, who'd come to Rome to be trained as an exorcist.

"Why exorcism?" was the first question my wife asked me when I floated the idea of the book. Truth be told, I the subject also made me uneasy. There's a reason why the 1974 movie "The Exorcist," which was based on a best-selling book by William Peter Blatty, remains among the most terrifying films ever made. Many human beings in many cultures live with a deep-seated fear that there exist forces well beyond their control. If demons were out there, did I want one coming after me?

I got the idea for the the book in 2005, when I heard about a course entitled "Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation" being taught at Rome's Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum, a well-established, Vatican-affiliated university. My first thought was that it was just a P.R. stunt. A college level course on exorcism? It didn't help to see the media hoardes on the first day, which only reinforced the course's apparent circus-like nature.

"The Exorcist": Movie with a mood.

But after a few weeks of attending lectures I started seeing a picture of exorcism that was very different from the folklore I'd been weaned on. More surprising was that many of the priests and nuns in attendance felt the same way.

When I first met Father Gary he had yet to witness an exorcism. In 2004, the Vatican had sent a letter to Catholic archdioceses around the world urging local churches to name an official exorcist — in part to guard against abuse.

Originally from San Jose, California, where he had left the mortuary business to join the seminary, later working for 15 years as a pastor at St. Nicholas Parish in Los Altos, Father Gary was named an exorcist in May 2005, which led to his enrollment in the Rome course. Then 52, he candidly told me he didn't know the first thing about what he was supposed to do. In fact, he was actively seeking an apprenticeship with a working exorcist.

In following weeks we kept in touch, until one day he told me that he'd finally seen his first exorcism — a case involving a nun who'd "flopped around on the ground like a fish," grunting and groaning ("Shut up, you stupid priest," the troubled nun, Sister Janica, snarled at Capuchin Father Carmine De Filippis, who was conducting the exorcism). As Father Gary told me more stories and elaborated on the process, I quickly filled up my notebook. One woman had repeatedly slammed her head into the wall and another spoke with what he called an otherworldly voice. In another case, a frail woman had bent the legs of a metal chair.

Baglio's "The Rite"

As he recounted these episodes, Father Gary seemed just as amazed as I. It was then that I realized that his story would make a great book. I saw it as a chance to follow a novice exorcist on his journey from skeptic to believer.

After the encounter, I immersed myself in the subject, my desk accumulating books with titles such as "The Prince of Darkness" and "Satan." I drove my wife crazy with constant ramblings about incorporeal spirits and the many ways in which the Catholic Church says a person can be cursed. I actually found it quite easy to detach myself from material concepts, a necessary part of probing the subject. I wanted to take an unbiased, non-macabre, almost scientific approach to determine just what the Church actually taught about exorcism.

My research ended up taking me places that I never thought I'd go. I interviewed 18 exorcists and several sufferers in and around Rome. Many seemed outwardly normal. It was hard to connect their appearence with the screams I heard emerging from the rooms where they met with priests.

During one interview a woman fell into a trance and began cursing a painting of Mary which she then tore down and stomped on.

I got my first direct exposure exposure to the rite and its aftermath at the church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, adjacent to Verano Cemetery in Rome. The exorcist prayed over people in a room the size of a walk-in closet with only a few metal folding-chairs inside. I sat in a nearby waiting room along with seven other people, a few clutching rosaries and praying silently.

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