By Father Alfonso Aguilar, LC
ROME, APRIL 6, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Does the devil exist? Father Gary Thomas of the Diocese of San Jose, California, once thought that belief in the devil's existence was part of an archaic and superstitious way of living the faith.
Father Thomas, who is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Saratoga, was asked by his bishop to travel to Rome for training in the rite of exorcism at a Vatican-affiliated university. Through the lessons given by great exorcists and the training from a priest based in Rome, Father Thomas experienced firsthand that the presence of personal Evil is concrete and more ubiquitous than he could ever imagine. He eventually performs more than 80 exorcisms, and becomes the official exorcist of the San Jose Diocese.
These are the experiences recounted in the 2009 book "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist" by Matt Baglio. Inspired by true events, "The Rite" follows the steps taken by a skeptical priest in order to become an exorcist. The story is interwoven with traditional theological notions about the demons, the touching experiences of possessed people, the quasi-magical power of the ancient rite, and the encounter, face to face, with the devil in person.
The book has inspired the feature film called "The Rite," which has been in theaters since January 28, starring Anthony Hopkins, no less. Directed by Mikael Håfström ("1408"), "The Rite" is a supernatural thriller that uncovers the devil’s reach to even one of the holiest places on earth.
On January 20 and 21 -- a week before the release of the movie in the U.S. theaters -- ZENIT spoke with Father Thomas about his call to the ministry of exorcism, his experiences over the past years in working with people seeking his help, and the prevalence of demonic influences in our society today.
Both Father Thomas and Matt Baglio were invited onto the set to consult in the making of the movie. "I was on the set for a week with the actors," Father Thomas said, "and I gave them input in terms of what the reaction to an exorcism and what the manifestations look like. For example, I taught Anthony Hopkins how he has to bless left to right and not right to left, and all those little things. The producer Beau Flynn and the director Mikael Håfström really wanted this to be supremely accurate, and I do too."
According to the Californian priest, "The Rite" is not a typical entertaining Hollywood product. "It’s really a movie about faith. It’s not a gory movie or a horror movie; there is no green pea soup or heads spinning off of bodies."
Father Thomas expressed the belief that learning about exorcisms is today more necessary than ever, because there are more Catholics who are involved in paganism, idolatry and the occult (psychics, tarot cards, Ouija boards, crystals, Wicca, séances, and the like), so there are a lot of people who are opening a lot of doors to the diabolical.
Certain signs would indicate possible demonic activity in someone. For example, "if somebody was able to speak in a language that he had no prior competency in, or if someone would foam at the mouth or have a lot of rolling of the eyes," Father Thomas said.
Another sign of a diabolical attachment can be found "if the person were not able to walk into a church or be close to any Catholic sacramental: holy water, a crucifix, the sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacramental anointing of the sick, or someone wearing some kind of a Christian symbol. If these caused a reaction, it certainly would be a sign."
Another sign is "when people have unnatural amounts of strength that they normally do not possess. Sometimes people will take on a serpentine appearance, again in reaction to sacraments and sacramentals."
On Thursday, Baglio will present his novel at the university where the story began: Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University (located at Via degli Aldobrandeschi, 190 in Rome).
The event, scheduled at 1:30 p.m., has been organized by the Pascal Center, an apologetics association, together with the Università Europea di Roma. Well-known Spanish exorcist Father José Antonio Fortea and Father Pedro Barrajón, Regina Apostolorum’s rector and a theologian expert on demons, will take part in the presentation.
"The idea began when I heard about a university-level course at a Vatican-affiliated school that purported to train potential exorcists," Baglio said. "As a freelance journalist living in Rome I thought it might just be a P.R. stunt. The only thing I knew about exorcism was from what I'd seen in Hollywood films like 'The Exorcist' and I wondered how the Catholic Church could still believe in it."
At this point, Baglio met Father Thomas and learned more about his spiritual journey. "Attending the course," he said, "I realized that the reality of exorcism is much different from what I'd imagined."
Baglio was born and raised in San Diego, California. In 1996, he graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a bachelors' degree in English literature. After a stint working as an intern and editorial assistant for TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine, Baglio moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a freelancer.
In 2000, in an effort to expand his horizons, Baglio took a trip to Europe where he met his future wife in Rome. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Italy permanently, and over the years he worked for a variety of news organizations and magazines, including The Associated Press, The American Magazine, The Snowboard Journal, COLORS, Bene, and Homeland Security Today, as well as a host of others.
Baglio's interests are varied, and his work has exposed him to topics as diverse as Vatican politics, anti-mafia police, the Olympics, and satanic cults. Currently, he lives in Rome with his wife and son. "The Rite" is his first book.
The novel impels the believer and the agnostic to consider the unavoidable presence of the devil in a new way. In that sense, it belongs to the rare and cherished genre of books capable of changing the reader in one way or another.
"The purpose of this book is not to promote any one faith over another, but to offer a detailed account of one priest's journey from a rational skeptic to a practicing exorcist," Baglio said. "I didn't set out to write with any preconceived bias and as such the book is written in a straightforward journalistic style, which means that I give respect to the beliefs and testimonies on all sides, including medical science."
From the theoretical point of view, it makes sense to believe that, if the existence of a higher good being is postulated, the personification of evil could be perceived by humans in certain circumstances.
"You be careful, Michael; choosing not to believe in the devil will not protect you from him," says Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) in the movie.
The ultimate question we are all compelled to answer by reading the book is the one used as the title of the movie's official Web site: "What do you believe?"
--- --- ---
On ZENIT's Web page:
Interview with Father Thomas: www.zenit.org/article-31515?l=english
On the Net:
For information on book presentation: www.upra.org