By Genevieve Pollock
SARATOGA, California, JAN. 20, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Jan. 28 is the release date for a new movie about exorcism and faith, which is based on the story of Father Gary Thomas, official exorcist of San Jose, California.
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.
The movie, “The Rite,” starring Anthony Hopkins and distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures, focuses on themes of faith, as evidenced by the promotional tagline: “You can only defeat it when you believe.”
It is based on the real experiences of Father Thomas, as recorded in the book, “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” by Matt Baglio. Both the author and the priest, who serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, were invited onto the set to consult in the making of the movie.
Hollywood producers are not the only ones with a renewed interest in this topic; last November the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops sponsored a two-day conference on exorcism, which took place in Baltimore just prior to the fall assembly. Some 56 prelates and 66 priests signed up for the course.
In this interview, Father Thomas described his experiences on the set of the movie, and explained the relevance of this ministry today.
Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.
ZENIT: Could you tell us about the scene on the set of the movie?
Father Thomas: I was on the set for a week with the actors, and I gave them input in terms of what the reaction to an exorcism and what the manifestations look like. The author of the book was on the set for most of the shoot.
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.
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.
I’ve not seen a lot of exorcism movies; there was one that was just out about three months ago called “The Last Exorcism,” which actually was very good. And “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” came out in 2005, which was done by New Line Cinema as well and actually done by the same producer. But I think this one has a whole different take to it, because it’s really a movie about faith.
ZENIT: Most people get their ideas of exorcism from what they’ve seen in movies and on television. What would you say is different about the way Hollywood portrays exorcism and the way you’ve experienced it?
Father Thomas: I think in many cases Hollywood is basing everything on sensationalism, which I’m hoping this movie is not about.
Exorcism, rather, is a ritual set of prayers that command the demon to cease its attempt to inflict harm, suffering, pain and total possession of a human being, and to depart.
There are some dramatic manifestations that I’ve encountered, but often times what Hollywood tries to do is exacerbate the dramatic and add to it in the name of entertainment, when quite honestly this is not a topic to entertain people with.
Is there a dramatic side to personified evil? Yes, there is.
Satan or his minions attempt to intimidate human beings and to cause them to lose heart altogether, but with the help of Christ we have nothing to worry about. We have nothing to fear.
Hollywood wants to play out the dramatic, and because they’ve never really seen exorcisms they’re just envisioning. I’ve had a number of media outlets contact me with the request to film one, and I’ve said no, because I have no guarantee and no reassurance that they are going to get it right.
I also say, you’re not going to objectify someone’s suffering in this way. Because then it becomes more of a fodder for entertainment rather than a way of becoming educated and informed about the real dark underbelly of the world.
ZENIT: How necessary is a ministry of exorcism in our country these days? Are these cases of demonic possession very frequent?
Father Thomas: The ministry is essential.
It is not because we are having so many cases of demonic possession. What we are seeing — speaking from my experience — is that we are all, not just the exorcists, but priests in general, having a lot more people coming to us about matters that are of this realm. Many of the issues people are coming with are actually not demonic; they are more related to mental health.
Sometimes people ask, “Why now?” And I say, because now there are more Catholics who are involved in paganism and idolatry, so there are a lot of people who are opening a lot of doors to the diabolical.
The occult is all about power. Now the occult is not synonymous with the Satanic, but it is a doorway.
There are also more and more Catholics, and people in general, now in this country who are involved in New Age things. With the opening of doorways to the New Age and the occult, you do not know what is behind that door; you do not know what you are tapping into most of the time.
So, are there more cases of possession? In five years, I’ve exorcised five people, whom I do believe had a demonic attachment. And I’ve prayed over others who also I think have a demonic attachment, but I’ve not done exorcisms with them.
But what is becoming very rampant is that more and more people are involved in pagan idolatry. Some of it is structured and formal, and some of it is not.
This is coupled with issues that have to do with sexual abuse; 80% of the people who come to me have been sexually abused. That is a soul wound, and a doorway for a demon.
If the soul wounds are coupled with either heavy drug use, heavy sexual perversions, sexual abuse or physical abuse, usually by a parent, a sibling or an extended family member, it becomes a recipe for an invitation for a demon.
It is not like demons just show up. You have to invite them in, or someone else invites them in for you.
If a person has been sexual abused it does not mean that they are going to have a demonic attachment. What I am saying is that when people have been sexually abused they become incredibly vulnerable to that possibility.
Then if they get involved in matters that have to do with paganism and idolatry, like the occult or things of the Satanic, the bar goes way up, the chances go up. Because demons are always looking for human beings who either have no relationships or a variety of broken relationships.
ZENIT: If Catholic laity find themselves in this situation, how would they guard against the possibility of demonic activity in their lives or how would they protect a loved one who they are worried about?
Father Thomas: There are a variety of ordinary means.
People say to me all the time, “I don’t want this to happen to me.” I tell them that as long as you have a faith life, a prayer life and a sacramental life, the chances of this occurring are very nil.
If you have a life that involves God — and for a Catholic if you have a sacramental life that involves the Eucharist and reconciliation with regularity — and your life is lived in the spirit of the will of God and the providence of God, you do not have any serious consideration to be concerned about.
It is when people are involved in the spirit world, which is rarely deliberate. It is usually out of curiosity, of when they think they can get a leg up on things.
For example, it can be people who get involved in very unorthodox types of meditation. I’m not talking about Ignatian spirituality or having a spiritual director who helps you learn how to meditate.
I’m talking about people who go off to Buddhist camps, or people who are involved in spiritism, where you do not know what they are involved in, and you do not know what kind of techniques people are using to somehow deal with the realm beyond this one. It is much more about stuff that is really not known or tested, or sometimes it is known and tested by people who really have the wrong focus. It is not about a relationship with God; it is about a relationship with self.
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On the Net:
“The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” Book: http://www.amazon.com/Rite-Making-Modern-Exorcist/dp/0385522703