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Demons, says the Rev. Gary Thomas, travel in gangs.

Like angels, they are pure spirits with varying powers and specific slots in a hierarchy, he says. "Demons are not equally powerful."

But five years after Thomas trained in Rome to become an exorcist, the 57-year-old parish priest has found this much true of all demons: They enter only those who open the door.

And, warns the Roman Catholic Church, in a world with a rising array of alternative spiritualities and mainstreaming of the occult — from tarot cards to channeling to magic to Satanism — more doors than ever are being unlatched.

An increasing demand for exorcists, fueled also by an entertainment culture fascinated with the macabre, has led the church to step up its game.

In the United States, Thomas estimates, the number of exorcists has jumped from 16 to 25 or more in the past year. Exorcism was even the topic of a two-day seminar preceding the annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual meeting in November. More than 120 bishops and priests attended.

More priest-exorcists are being appointed all the time after the Vatican directed in 2004 that each diocese have a priest designated as an exorcist.

Thomas, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, Calif., is the exorcist for the San Jose Diocese and the priest whose exorcist training is the basis of a new movie starring Anthony Hopkins.

The Warner Bros. movie, "The Rite," opened Friday and is based on the 2009 book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by Matt Baglio.

Baglio, a journalist living in Rome, became friends with Thomas when both took a class on exorcism in 2005.

Thomas is also, in a sense, the exorcist for the Salt Lake City Diocese. Bishop John C. Wester says that because diabolical possession is so rare, his diocese (which includes all Utah Catholics) does not have its own exorcist. If demons were suspected, Wester says, he would turn to Thomas, an acquaintance from years back.

Indeed, Thomas says, Wester did refer a priest to him for consultation about a person with troubles, but that's as far as it went.

"Bishop Wester doesn't have one, but he knows he can call me," Thomas says. "Does he have an exorcist? Yes and no."

Science and theology

That exorcism is even being discussed among Catholic leaders embarrasses some theologians and priests.

The Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, scorned plans for the November seminar in his National Catholic Reporter column. "Those with a deep interest in Catholic issues will recognize immediately how pertinent and even urgent this conference will be," he sarcastically wrote.

Other theologians suggested the bishops spend their time instead talking about Christ.

The Rev. Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, told The New York Times that his first reaction when he heard about the seminar was "why?"

Such reactions are not surprising, given two modern cultural currents.

Medical science now can explain most — if not all — afflictions in psychiatric or psychological terms. And, stemming from a modern theology that casts Satan and demons as metaphors rather than literal spirits, many priests and lay Catholics scoff at the notion of demons even as they accept evil.

Monsignor M. Francis Mannion, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Salt Lake City, says he, too, was surprised the bishops saw a need for the exorcism seminar.

"I've never seen one. I've never done one. I don't know anybody that's ever done one," says Mannion, whose column in the national publication Our Sunday Visitor answers questions about the faith.

But the bishops have wider experiences than he does, Mannion says. And it's not as if the church ever has backed away from the Bible's teaching that Satan and demons are spirits and that Christ's disciples are to cast them out of the possessed.

"It's part of our tradition, however one understands him or her [Satan]. It certainly can't be dismissed."

Minor exorcisms, Mannion notes, are part of every Catholic baptism, when the Holy Spirit is asked to protect one from evil. Adult Catholic converts receive minor exorcisms on three successive Sundays of Lent, before they are baptized.

"The idea of the devil is not popular, but if one looks over the history of the 20th century, one sees plenty of evidence of evil that seems to transcend any one individual."

'A healing church'

Thomas sees exorcism as a ministry of healing.

Of the 100 people who have sought his help as an exorcist in five years — including several non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians — he has discerned that only five were possessed of demons and in need of exorcism.

He listened to and prayed over the others. But, in the end, he suggested mental-health professionals would be their better bet.

Critics of the church's renewed emphasis on exorcism, Thomas says, clearly have no experience.

"There is intense suffering. And even though the vast majority of people are suffering from mental illness, they are still suffering," he says. "If we say there is no such thing as a demon or take what they say lightly, what does that say about us as a healing church?"

Thomas uses a team that includes a psychiatrist and a psychologist to vet cases in which he suspects diabolical influences. He also seeks permission from his bishop before exorcising anyone.

His experience is that most of those pestered by evil spirits are women — a point Baglio makes in his book, researched mostly in Italy, where there are hundreds of priest-exorcists.

Thomas is unsure why. "Women, by their nature, are more affective, more sensitive to things of the spirit," he speculates.

Of the five people he discerned as possessed — clues include aversion to anything holy, ability to speak languages they have no reason to know, and awareness of hidden items — four were women.

While Thomas estimates 80 percent of the people who seek help were sexually abused, those most vulnerable to possession are those who also have dabbled in the occult or tried to smother their pain with drugs, alcohol or crime.

Exorcism is no one-time event, he adds. It usually takes many exorcisms to expel the demons and most of the work belongs to the one afflicted.

He or she must develop a prayer life and return to the church's sacraments: Sunday Mass attendance and monthly confession. Too often, he says, those afflicted want quick fixes and aren't willing to develop a relationship with God.

Of those five people, he says, two women "quit because they were not willing to stay the course and lost patience." Two other women now function adequately and no longer undergo exorcisms.

A man whom author Baglio calls "Doug" in an afterword to the paperback edition of The Rite is nearing the end of his third series of exorcisms, Thomas says.

Doug, freed twice of demons, refused to take seriously Thomas' admonition that he needed to work on his spiritual life, the priest says. Each time "they came back sevenfold."

This time, Thomas says, Doug is rigorously practicing his faith and likely will be free of demons after a few more exorcisms.

Besides meeting with those who fear they are under demonic influence, Thomas often gives talks about exorcism. He emphasizes that Satan does not exist in a vacuum. He plays a role in all of salvation history, particularly Christ's victory over him in the crucifixion.

"You've got to talk about the cross," Thomas says, "in order for Christians to understand the veracity of Satan. He's not just a metaphor."

Reel to real

The new movie is quite accurate, Thomas says, even though some details of his life have been changed.

His character, Michael Kovak, played by Irish actor Colin O'Donoghue, is a young seminarian rather than a middle-aged priest. Thomas never doubted the existence of demons; Kovak does.

Baglio's character is a woman journalist, Angeline, played by Brazilian Alice Braga. Hopkins plays Father Lucas, the veteran Rome exorcist who mentors the seminarian.

The movie was filmed in Budapest, Hungary. Thomas spent a week on the set; Baglio spent weeks there.

"This is not a green-pea soup and spinning heads and levitating beds kind of movie," says Thomas, referring to the 1970s classic "The Exorcist." "It's really a movie about faith, and exorcism is the vehicle by which my character comes to faith."

Baglio says the exorcism class introduced him to a world he never knew.

As an American journalist reared Catholic but only nominally practicing the faith, he was intrigued when he learned about the class.

"I kind of thought it was like a PR stunt. I wondered, 'Do people still believe in this stuff?' "

Soon he met Thomas, who agreed to share his journey, and Baglio found himself interviewing dozens of exorcists.

He was surprised to find that exorcists often are the biggest skeptics and rule out mental illness or medical issues before discerning spiritual problems. The centuries-old Exorcism Rite used in the church was updated in 1999 and requires priests to be "morally certain" one is possessed before conducting a "major" exorcism.

As for why some people suffer more than the typical evil influence — temptation to sin — Baglio says it remains a mystery.

"At the end of the day, it's all up to the will of God," Baglio says. "God allows it, for whatever reason."

But, first, people open the door.

Watch movie clips

O View trailers from "The Rite" at

Discuss it at —

What people say aboutthe devil


Whatever the less discerning theologians may say, the devil, as far as Christian belief is concerned, is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolical presence."

Pope Benedict XVI

In The Ratzinger Report, a 1985 book-length interview

"The devil, the 'prince of this world' [John 12:31], even today continues his deceitful action. Every man, over and above his own concupiscence and the bad example of others, is also tempted by the devil, and the more so when he is least aware of it."

Pope John Paul II

During his Sunday Angelus blessing, Feb. 17, 2002

"Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. … When the humans disbelieve in our existence, we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics."


To his nephew and fellow demon Wormwood in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters —

How an exorcism works

While any person is able to say prayers of deliverance over another, asking God for protection from evil, only an ordained priest can be an exorcist in the Roman Catholic Church.

The word exorcism comes from the Greek exorkizo, meaning "to bind with an oath," or demand insistently.

While early Christians cast demons out of those believed afflicted, the formal rite used in the church developed over centuries.

The Catholic Church's Rite of Exorcism, in use since the 17th century, was updated in 1999. It emphasizes that a priest must be "morally certain" a person's problem is spiritual, not mental illness, before conducting an exorcism.

An exorcism can last for 20 minutes or several hours. The rite spells out precisely the prayers, invocation of saints and commands the priest must use in ordering the demons to leave the person. The only thing he is allowed to ask of a demon is his name and when he will depart.

Typically, a priest will use holy water and a crucifix. He will touch the person's neck, eyes, ears, mouth, nose, forehead and heart with the crucifix as he prays.

Usually in the room are others, such as other priests and family members of the one afflicted, to protect the priest and possessed person from injury.

Sources: The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio; and New Advent Encyclopedia —

From angel to devil

For most Christians, the devil, or Satan, and his demons are angels who rebelled against God and were cast down to Earth.

Their chief characteristic is that they hate God and the humans he loves.

Just as angels can nudge humans to do God's will, demons can influence them to contradict him. Both are spirits.

The most common demonic activity, Christians agree, is to tempt humans to sin, although devils don't account for every temptation, according to theologians. Humanity's inclination, which most Christians regard as original sin, accounts for much of what goes wrong in the human-and-God relationship.

Christians vary in their beliefs about how much fallen angels can do beyond temptation. And they vary in how they deal with the diabolical.

Orthodox Christians, including Catholics, use deliverance prayers for those who are bothered by demons and exorcism in the rare case of possession, when demons are believed to take up residence in a person.

Deliverance ministries are particularly prevalent among Pentecostal Christians, and some evangelical Protestants also engage in deliverance or exorcism.

Other Protestants question exorcism.

"We do not need a rite of exorcism, only the name of Jesus," R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on his website this fall. "We are not given a priesthood of exorcists — for every believer is armed with the full promise of the gospel, united with Christ by faith, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit."

Mormons believe that adult men who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood are able to cast out demons through blessings that entail invoking Christ and the authority of the priesthood.

Latter-day Saints have a traditionally Christian take on how angels and demons influence humans, says Philip Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

Nineteenth-century Mormons, he says, were particularly "demon conscious."

"Most Mormons would accept the proposition that there is a literal being, a devil, because it is so woven into the Mormon story," Barlow says. "And yet … they would be less trigger happy to explain every phenomenon that comes along in those terms."

Kristen Moulton