This month The Rite opens at movie theaters across the United States. It’s the gripping tale of a San Jose, California, priest, Father Gary Thomas, who at his bishop’s request went to Rome to study exorcism.
Matt Baglio, an American journalist in Rome, wrote a book based on Father Gary’s story. The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist was published in 2009 by Doubleday (with an audio version shortly thereafter by St. Anthony Messenger Press). The film is based on Baglio’s book.
Baglio, living in Rome, spent time with Father Gary during his exorcist training in 2005, while Father Gary was apprenticing with an Italian priest at over 80 exorcisms. In Italy, exorcism is a ritual that never really left the public eye.
St. Anthony Messenger interviewed Matt Baglio twice in recent years for our radio program, American Catholic Radio. Our most recent interview was last November, as the film was being completed. Radio producer Matt Wielgos, on his way to a pilgrimage in Assisi, talked to Baglio in Rome in a piazza over a cup of coffee.
Journalist With Faith
Matt Baglio, a San Diego journalist, settled in Rome after falling in love with an Italian woman, his future wife, back in 2000. He found journalism jobs there, including working for the Associated Press. Church was not his highest concern. “I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school,” he recalls. As an adult he was a sporadic Massgoer. His interest in writing about the exorcism training brought him back, in his words, to a “stronger connection with the Church.”
Matt wanted to bring the tools of journalism to a topic that’s received a lot of publicity over the years. “In the past, I had seen books that had been written by exorcists, by believers, and they were 100-percent sure that what they were seeing was everything that their Church taught.” Then he’d hear from skeptics, who were equally convinced that exorcism was scientifically impossible. “There was this disconnect between the two,” he says. Then, in a refrain typical of journalists, he says, “I wanted to find out what the truth was.”
So Baglio set off to ask questions. “The best way that I can answer your question is to talk to priests and exorcists and ask them that same question,” the journalist says. His questions led him to the exorcism school at Regina Apostolorum, a pontifical college operated by the Legionaries of Christ.
The Legionaries, it must be mentioned, have come under extreme scrutiny in recent times, after the abusive behavior of their founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, was uncovered. The community is currently under direct supervision of a papal delegate, and is being reorganized.
Regardless of the Legionaries’ troubles, exorcism is nothing new to the Church. Exorcism, the casting out of demons, goes back to the ministry of Jesus himself (see Mark 5:13). The 1973 film The Exorcist, based on the experiences of a Boston Jesuit, brought the exorcism rite into modern popular awareness. (See sidebar on p. 23.)
Pope John Paul II, in the 1980s, brought exorcism back into higher profile in the Church, in part as a response to growing concernssurrounding the spread of New Age theology. Some strains of New Age beliefs include witchcraft and other interactions with darker spiritual powers.
So Matt Baglio found himself at the Legionaries’ pontifical seminary, sitting in a room full of priests from across the world. Father Gary, a fellow Californian, was a natural person to follow through the six-month training. A book followed, and now a film.
The book is a straightforward account of what Matt Baglio found, and the result of his research on the history of exorcism. This film, as films often do, takes dramatic license with the story line, as we will explain.
A Catholic Encounter
As an active Catholic, Baglio saw things more from the inside than would many journalists. “I think exorcism is a topic that divides a lot even within the Church,” observes Baglio. Many Catholics, including priests, treat people claiming possession with either disdain or suspicion, he says. “The more common response [among priests] was, you know, ‘I don’t really care about that,’ or ‘I don’t want to pay attention to that.’
“One of the reasons why I wrote the book the way that I did,” he explains, “is to say, ‘This is the reality of exorcism as the Church teaches it.’”
When he began attending the exorcism course, he says, he had his own preconceptions. “I was really surprised when I actually heard the teachings of the Church—you know, what is a pure spirit? What is a demon? How does it interact with people?” He ultimately changed his popular culture-informed ideas about exorcism dramatically. “Exorcism is connected to the sacraments,” he learned. “It’s connected to the healing ministry of Jesus.”
This is a change in direction from the “priest as hero” or “priest as gunslinger” idea prevalent in the media culture surrounding exorcism. That’s the easy way, he says. “It’s much harder to get people interested in the reality of it, which can sometimes be quite boring.”
For example, the first and foremost line of fire recommended by the Church is for people to receive the sacraments, he says, to practice the faith. “People don’t want to hear that; they want to hear the more dramatic, the fantastic, the sensational.” Exorcism is very rare, Baglio learned. And most of the people who come to see exorcists don’t need an exorcism. Many have mental-health problems and need to be referred for medical help.
Those who are not mentally ill have a different course to take. “What they need to do is practice their faith,” says Baglio. His effort in writing the book, he says, “was really to try to put it out there in such a way that people could hopefully approach it without feeling ridiculous.” Exorcism, at heart, is a practice of faith. It’s “more connected to the power of prayer,” he says. “It’s the idea of the Church as trying to overcome evil rather than running away from it.”
Matt Baglio, journalist that he is, strove to listen to both sides of the story in his research. “I had a critic tell me that I was gullible—that I believed everything that these priests told me.” But he insists that his job is not “to pass judgment on their stories but to report their stories.”
He devoted much of his research to talking with critics. “I really talked to skeptics. I really talked to scientists,” says Baglio. “I tried to go as deep as I could in that direction,” asking for scientific explanations for phenomena that the Church sees as supernatural: “I gave them as much space as I gave to the priests,” he insists.
One thing about evil spirits, notes Baglio, is that people today acknowledge them regardless of Church teaching. A look at the New Age section of common bookshops tells the story. “People are going to ‘spiritual releasement therapy.’ They’re having their home visits by psychics.” The Church offers a corrective: “These priests, these exorcists, are actually helping people to move away from the superstitious.”
This is perhaps more an issue in Italy, where curses, evil eyes and the like are more common than in the United States. There are about half a million exorcisms per year in Italy, reports Catholic News Service.
Making the Film
Baglio, along with Father Thomas, served as a consultant for the justreleased film. “I really wanted to try to make sure that it was as accurate as possible,” Baglio says. But there’s a disclaimer close behind: “I didn’t write the script. I’m not the director; I’m not an actor.” (The scriptwriter, Michael Petroni, also wrote the new film based on C.S. Lewis’s Christian classic, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)
Actually, in Hollywood style, the screenplay does take liberties with Baglio’s work. The most obvious is that Father Gary is cast, not as an experienced, middle-aged priest seeking training, but rather as a young seminarian skeptic.
Anthony Hopkins, awarded an Oscar for a terrifying role as a psychotic killer in The Silence of the Lambs, plays Father Lucas, a seasoned exorcist who educates Michael Kovak, the skeptical seminarian (a premiere role for Colin O’Donoghue). Angeline, a journalist whose role is inspired by Baglio’s real life, is played by Alice Braga.
Baglio served as technical consultant. “I was very happy to have that opportunity,” he says. “They didn’t have to do that.” Baglio sees it as evidence that the filmmakers wanted accuracy. Father Gary was on the set “to sort of lend a hand and to give tips to the people involved,” says Baglio. “It was more about trying to show them the human side of it—that this is something that involves people, that there’s a suffering involved.
“This isn’t something that is special effects,” says Baglio. There are real stories and real people. He told the producers,“This isn’t something that has to go over the top.” He counseled them to keep things subtle and realistic, and not to sensationalize. That’s where the impact of his story is, he says: “It’s through the difficulties of a young girl to try to pray, to go to church, to deal with her problems.”
But he acknowledges that Hollywood is Hollywood. “I think the media has its own take on exorcism,” he acknowledges. “All of it plays toward sensational because it’s easier to sell.” He excuses the moviemakers, though, for changing the story line and characters for effect. After all, films are different from books.
The increased drama will “open up the topic to a different audience—perhaps a younger audience who wouldn’t read a book….If you look at some of these other movies that have nothing to do with the Church, hopefully, this is something that will remind people that this topic is more serious than it is silly.”
Making the ‘Right Choices’
Beneath all of the sensationalism, all of the hype, confusion and fascination about exorcism, Matt Baglio sees a deeper meaning, a Catholic meaning. “I think the idea I had in the book was really to show people that because we have free will…that it’s really up to us to make the right choices. It’s about us participating in our religion and believing in God.” That’s what really helps the person become liberated, says Baglio. “It isn’t the exorcist who has the magic powers.”
Exorcism is a prayer, he reminds this interviewer. “It’s connected to the Church.” It’s about helping people, individuals living in the community of the Church, to make the right choices. “I try to achieve with the book the idea that in a world where this stuff exists as the Church says it exists, it’s still about you being a good person and a moral person.” These spirits don’t just pounce on people, the Church teaches. “You have to open up a doorway in some way.” He hopes that the film will reinforce that concept.
Other than that, Baglio hopes that people will take away from the film the understanding that “if evil exists, there’s a way to defeat it.” That way is through “maintaining a connection with something that’s good—with God and with all that’s good, rather than focusing on the bad stuff.”
At http://www.FranciscanMedia.org, click on American Catholic Radio and search for program #1105.
The Priest Behind the Movie
FATHER GARY THOMAS is pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, California. It was he who, in 2005, answered his bishop’s request to take the exorcist training in Rome that led to Matt Baglio’s book and the film that has now grown from it.
There’s nothing peculiar about Father Gary or his parish—he’s in his 50s; his 1,100-household parish has a school, RCIA programs, outreach to the economically poor and all of the things you might expect from a parish of Sacred Heart’s size. He calls the parish “a bit on the affluent side.”
We caught up with him just after he had attended a two-day series of talks this past November on exorcism, sponsored in Baltimore by the U.S. bishops. It was an attempt to help get bishops mobilized on what is perceived as a growing problem in our country: increasing fascination with the occult, Wiccan religion and other beliefs that fall roughly under the rubric of New Age. All of these open participants to the diabolical.
The training Father Gary had previously taken, for three and a half months in Rome, changed the way he interprets much of what is going on in American culture today. In Rome, he says, “I encountered a lot of people with diabolical attachments.” He had never doubted the existence of Satan, he says, “but I had never seen what I am seeing now.”
For example, he sees the work of Satan in such horrible events as the 9/11 attacks in 2001 or 1999’s horrendous violence at Columbine High School. They each had a “premeditative nature, and the intent to do maximum harm…to denigrate humanity,” he observes.
“I’m looking at what I’m looking at through a new optic,” he says. “I’m hearing what I’m hearing with a new set of ears.” He is much more attuned now, he says, to New Age practices, “what families and individuals are often involved in.”
On the other hand, though, he learned that most of the people who claim to be possessed “are really experiencing mental-health problems.” Some, he explains, “are experiencing the diabolical, to varying degrees, and some are experiencing both mental-health problems and the diabolical.”
A lot of people who are seeing and hearing things are experiencing psychosis, have deep depression or sense a presence of some sort, he adds, and are not experiencing the diabolical.
“We have a team in the diocese, so I never do these things alone,” he explains. That discernment team includes a physician, a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist and two priests. “I don’t do this alone—in fact, it would be the worst thing in the world for me to do this alone.”
Possession—complete takeover by a demon—“is very rare,” he says. “There are lesser degrees—we might call them an oppression or an obsession,” he adds, “or even some kind of harassment or infestation.” People afflicted in this way might function at work or at home, but might “have a very difficult time going into a church, or looking at anything of a sacred, sacramental nature.”
Of course, he explains, there’s no way that one would know this about another person unless he or she told you. That’s where a discernment team picks up.
There’s plenty here that’s “under the radar,” he says. “People here don’t have the critical eye to understand it.” Father Gary would even observe that American society is “becoming increasingly pagan.” That’s what is fueling dabbling with the occult.
More often than not, though, these are mental-health issues, he reiterates. “That’s why I have these therapists and priests with me. The exorcism prayers and rituals take a lot of my energy—they’re emotionally charged—but it’s the discernment that takes a lot of time.”
Father Gary spent about a week on the set in Budapest, where much of The Rite was filmed. Matt Baglio was there for most of the shoot, he says. From what he saw, “they wanted this to be highly accurate—they really wanted those exorcism scenes to look very authentic.”
He wasn’t there just as a fixture, he adds. “I was there coaching Anthony Hopkins [and the other actors] how you dress, how you wear the stole, how you punctuate the prayers—I helped them with all of that. They really wanted to know.”
Satan and the Silver Screen by Christopher Heffron
They say Hollywood can be hell. Considering how memorably—and often—the devil has factored into motion pictures, that theory could be true.
These film depictions of Satan are unforgettable.
>(1968): This horror classic relies more on subtlety than shock—and to superb effect. Mia Farrow deftly plays a New York housewife who suspects her neighbors are a coven of witches with devilish plans for her unborn child. The final scene still packs a punch.
The Exorcist (1973): After almost four decades, The Exorcist is still a visceral film experience. Linda Blair memorably spouts obscenities—and green pea soup—as a bedeviled preteen.
The Omen (1976): Long overshadowed by The Exorcist, The Omen tells the story of a loving and affluent couple who suspect their son, Damien, is the Antichrist. Terrifying.
Oh, God! You Devil (1984): George Burns plays both darkness and light in this ’80s comic romp.
Legend (1985): Mostly fairytale fluff, Legend does, however, offer one of the most visually arresting depictions of Satan, played with menacing glee by Tim Curry.
Angel Heart (1987): Director Alan Parker, a master of mood and mystique, helmed this underrated thriller starring Robert De Niro as the bearded dark one.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987): Who says the devil can’t ham it up? Jack Nicholson plays the wily prince of darkness, who seduces three New England women.
The Devil’s Advocate (1997): Al Pacino found the perfect role for his signature scenery chewing.
The Passion of the Christ (2004): Simply with her presence, Rosalinda Celentano, as a genderless Satan, taunts Christ and terrifies moviegoers.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005): Jennifer Carpenter is astonishing as a possessed young woman who undergoes an exorcism. Loosely based on real events.
“Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1673)