Fascinating tale of a priest who, before he began training as an exorcist, was sceptical about the phenomenon of demonic evil.
The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by Matt Baglio. Doubleday (New York, 2009).
Reviewed by Nancy Roberts
In modern life, the concept of evil personified in Satan and his minions may seem a superstitious anachronism. After all, we now have a sophisticated grasp of the neurological and psychological causes of epilepsy, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and the like – all conditions whose treatment, in earlier times, often consisted of casting out the devils within.
Yet the church maintains that demons are not just metaphorical, but can, if rarely, actually inhabit the physical bodies of human beings, and to this day practices a rite of exorcism to dispel them. And while it may take months or even years of exorcisms to “liberate” a person from a demonic presence, the church’s solemn ritual of exorcism can be a formidable weapon against such evil.
These are key ideas in Matt Baglio’s book, “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.” In it he recounts the experiences of Father Gary Thomas, a likable California pastor, who answered his bishop’s call to take a course in Rome about demonic possession and took part in more than 80 exorcisms along with veteran Italian exorcists.
Baglio, a reporter who has written for The Associated Press and the International Herald Tribune and lives in Rome, met Father Thomas there in the fall of 2005. The two developed a warm friendship that led to the priest’s full cooperation with the reporter as he progressed through his apprenticeship as an exorcist.
The article Baglio had originally planned to write grew into a book that delves not only into eyewitness accounts of Father Thomas’ journey as he learned to cast out demons, but also the history of exorcism’s rites and rituals, portraits of those said to be possessed by demons, and a discussion of the role of angels, devils, satanic cults and curses.
Many people think that exorcists see demons everywhere, but as Baglio writes in a fascinating chapter, the opposite is much more likely.
The church’s guidelines urge prudence and emphasize the importance of “discernment of spirits,” which is considered to be a gift of the Holy Spirit. The church further “gives three signs that indicate the possible presence of a demon: abnormal strength, the ability to speak or understand a previously unknown language, and the knowledge of hidden things,” Baglio continues.
Because many mental illnesses could be mistakenly interpreted as evidence of possession, it is typical, Baglio reports, “that an exorcist will have a team of individuals (a psychiatrist, psychologist and perhaps a neurologist) that he trusts to help him with discernment.”
Baglio has good storytelling instincts and avoids sensationalizing his topic. Still, his description of dramatic changes in a possessed person’s vocal intonation during one of Father Thomas’ “apprentice” exorcisms is chilling: “As Father Carmine continued with the prayers, a low guttural growl began to emanate from Sister Janica. Father Gary studied her, trying to determine its source. … It sounded like the noise a dog makes when it’s getting ready to bite someone. From his reading he did know that it was possible for a demon to attack an exorcist during the ritual. … He had no idea what he would do if something violent like that occurred.”
Father Thomas is shown here in all of his initial skepticism that eventually gave way to a deeper understanding of the nature of evil. Indeed, his experiences led him to a profound change in his approach to his calling, because they “expos(ed) him to a level of human suffering that he never knew existed.” At the same time, he emerged with a great sense of hope, because he found that the exorcism ritual truly worked: “Even though evil existed in the world, there was a way to defeat it.”
In the end, “The Rite” won’t quell all skepticism about this subject; consider that physicians still use a specialized term, “demonomania,” to describe a mental illness in which the patient has a delusion of being possessed by evil spirits.
But overall the book illuminates one of the world’s most long-standing and mysterious phenomena.
Interestingly, writing the book occasioned a profound change in the author, who credits the experience with turning him from being a “cultural” Catholic back to a practising one. In many ways, Baglio writes, this is what exorcists themselves aim to accomplish: to help the demon-possessed return to the sacraments and so, by strengthening the practice of their faith, empower them to resist evil.
Roberts is a professor of journalism and communication at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and the author of “Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker,” among other books.