We take a lot for granted, we humans. Gravity keeps us comfortably in our seats. Light comes in the morning, only to wane in the night, fading into pale starlight. The Earth spins on its axis in the darkness of space, making its way around the sun in a solar system that sits on a safe and quiet arm of the Milky Way galaxy. We know how all these things work. We do not fret, because we can comfortably explain, quantify, and catalog every phenomenon to ourselves, and those natural systems we have yet to understand will no doubt soon submit to the searching power of the mind of man.
But my interview with Vatican-trained exorcist, Father Gary Thomas, tells a very different story.
In religious lore all over the globe, there is depicted a world that exists in the peripheral, beyond the natural laws that bind our material forms. A world of spirit rather than flesh.
In the Christian tradition, God rules over all creation, material and spirit alike. He commands hosts of angels, and examples of interaction between these heavenly beings and mankind are littered throughout the Bible. Angels do the bidding of God, and are sent out as messengers, healers, rescuers, and sometimes destroyers that have wiped entire cities from ancient maps and decimated armies. All, though, serve the will of God, and the will of God is always good, brought forth from a place of unimaginable love for all creation. These angels are beings of goodness.
But not everything in the spiritual realm is holy. There is darkness, as well—darkness that once was light.
Revelation 12:7-9 reads, “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
Those angelic betrayers are now among us—spiritual beings so corrupt that they saw the very face of God, and yet still chose to betray Him, likely because of an intense jealousy of mankind. God, after all, made us in His image, and loves us dearly. And these angels who betrayed the God of the universe because of their jealousy of man were cast down to earth—with us.
What could be more terrifying? We are faced with a celestial foe that harbors no end of ill will toward mankind, an enemy that we cannot see or hear or touch, but who can affect us nonetheless. What can we possibly do in the face of this?
It is this question I took to Fr. Gary Thomas, mandated exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, California. In 2005, Fr. Thomas was sent to study at the Vatican’s Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome, where he completed 40 hours of study in the sacred rites of driving out demonic presence—he became an exorcist.
With only about 14 Vatican-certified exorcists working in the U.S. as of 2011, Fr. Thomas’s knowledge is a rarity—so rare and interesting, in fact, that journalist Matt Baglio chronicled Fr. Gary’s learning and experiences into the book, “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” which served as the inspiration for the subsequent film. Father Thomas spent about a week on the set of the film, as well, advising director Mikael Hafstrom and actor Anthony Hopkins, drawing on his experiences with real cases of possession.
In our phone interview, I found Fr. Thomas to be an exceedingly intelligent, fair-minded man whose passion for his calling was half-hidden in a quiet thoughtfulness. Over the next thirty minutes, he proceeded to answer each one of my questions, his responses to which are here, provided for the benefit of those who wish to know how to protect themselves from demonic activity.
"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
“What is a demon?”
A demon, according to Fr. Thomas, is “an angelic creature who rebelled against the sovereignty of God, and who aligned itself with Lucifer. Demons are fallen angels, and retain their angelic nature even though they’re fallen. They’re aligned with Satan—that’s implied. Scripture, the book of Revelations, tells of a third of the angels rebelling against God. What does that mean numerically? We don’t know.
We just know that there was this rebellion in heaven and that Lucifer and some of his company were expelled. But they are angels who have fallen out of grace with God, and rebelled against God over envy and jealousy related to humanity.”
The stance of the Catholic Church is that demons are fallen angels, and retain their angelic nature. They’re not human ghosts or Nephilim spirits or benign passersby on the cosmic scale. They’re powerful, malevolent entities. This fact of their power brought me to my next question.
"What do demons want?"
"Their purpose,” said Fr. Thomas, “is to take as many of God’s children to eternal damnation with them. There’s a parasitic quality to their existence because they are all slowly dying—they’ve been dying since the moment they rebelled against God, and so they often times are attaching themselves to artificially experience life, but their ultimate goal is to take many of us into eternal damnation. Because of their jealousy and envy about the human race, they see us as competition, even though they’re of a higher nature.
You look at the book of Genesis—Satan is never described as Satan when he manifests himself as the serpent. It’s implied and understood as evil presenting itself in this serpentine way, but the whole point of Lucifer doing that was, again, to wreck God’s relationship with the human race because they were created in the image and likeness of God, even though we’re lower than the angels. There was jealousy on the part of Lucifer because of God’s creation of us.”
Jealousy. These angels lost their places in heaven because of jealousy that stemmed from a black knot of pride. Satan could suffer no other being to be more beloved than himself.
What can we do when such power is turned against us, fueled by ancient anger? This, too, I asked Fr. Thomas.
“What are some signs of demonic passion or infestation?”
“The six classic signs of demonic possession are the following.
An aversion to the sacred is the biggest sign. Now, in the Catholic tradition be we have sacraments, and those can cause intense reactions. There would be an aversion to receiving the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus, or it would be an aversion to walking into a church of any kind, for that matter, not just a Catholic church. It could be an aversion to holy water, crucifixes, symbols, etc. It could be an aversion to even being near a minister, whether it be a priest or someone else. It somehow causes a reaction, like there’s fear for no apparent reason, or illness or upset stomach for no apparent reason, just out of the blue all of a sudden. The person could be foaming at the mouth and coughing in an abnormal way—they’re coughing sputum—that’s what foaming at the mouth looks like. It’s not shaving cream foam. It’s the casting out of a spirit—that’s what’s causing the foaming at the mouth. This can also be a reaction to the power of prayer, as well.
Another would be speaking in a language you have no competence in.
The rolling of the eyes can be another sign—usually a reaction to the sacred.
There can also be an inordinate display of extreme strength and violence, picking up large objects which they normally wouldn’t be able to do.
The demon can speak through the vessel in the voice of the person, saying things that no one might know, using this information to undermine others. Including the priest.
There can be a reaction of the limbs and face—huge physical contortions of the arms, the legs, and the face.”
“Can we defend ourselves against demonic attack?”
Fr. Thomas described four means of protection, four things that Christians should immerse themselves in.
“A faith life, a prayer life, a moral life, and, for Catholics, a sacramental life.
A prayer life would be the rhythm we establish in the way we commune with God. It could be prayers that are formal, based on the authority of a church, or it could be spontaneous or informal prayer that we simply utter when we commune with God. Prayer is communing with God. Prayer is our conversation with God. It can also be quietly waiting for a response from God.
While faith life is about our relationship with God, the prayer life is about taking that relationship to a deeper level. It’s one thing to believe in the existence of God, but do you have a personal relationship with God? Now, people can come to all kinds of different designs of a personal relationship with God, but it’s basically ‘do I know God,’ and ‘do I spend time with God, in or out of a church?’ You can have a relationship with God outside of a church.
For an atheist or nonbeliever, to have a moral life is huge. Are atheists at higher risk? Possibly. But Satan is always looking for people with no relationships or broken relationships, so one can be a Catholic and be baptized, and still have a demonic problem because of doors that have been opened, or that have been opened for them. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, at least some, would say that baptism guarantees a kind of eternal protection. Well, in my experience, that’s not true.
Baptism does give us a kind of protection, but that doesn’t mean that God does not also permit our free will. Most of the people I see are Catholics—not all, but most—who’ve had all kinds of demonic issues because of bad decisions they’ve made, or sometimes decisions they didn’t have anything to do with that have been made for them.”
Is it dangerous for non-Catholics to attempt exorcism?
“Well, I would say this: I think God respects the authority of churches that use the name of Jesus Christ. However, we have a protocol, and we do a lot of discernment.
I’ve been getting, on occasion, calls or emails form other traditions, because demonic activity is happening more and more now within other denominations, not just amongst Catholics—and they don’t know what to do. They’re worse off than we are. They really don’t know what to do because exorcism is not even a part of their theology.
I would say that in some other traditions, I think there’s a danger to assume that many manifestations that look otherworldly are not, necessarily, whereas I think in our tradition we clearly involve the social sciences, experts medicine, and religious folks who are trained, who discern carefully and most judiciously whether or not something demonic is going on in a person’s life.
So we’re very, very cautious about using the solemn rite of exorcism. We use deliverance prayer a lot. Those are considered minor exorcisms. But what people are always hung up on is the solemn rite of exorcism which you see in the movies. We use that very sparingly, only when it’s not only clear, but when all other means of casting out the demonic have not been successful. Whereas in other movements, I’m not sure how discerning they are. I mean, I have to be careful because I don’t want to make generalizations. It’s in the foreword to the rite of exorcism—you move at a very, very conservative pace, and you involve a lot of other people, and that’s why when I teach at the school—there’s a school of exorcism in Chicago that the church has set up—I’m emphatic about exorcism being intrinsically collaborative. You cannot do this by yourself. Because it’s too dangerous, and you have to involve other experts in this. You can’t do this by yourself. You have to rule out the natural before you can move to the preternatural.
Sometimes, I’ve disappointed people when they get their mind figured that they’ve got the answer to their dilemma, and they don’t. Other times, they’re relieved. But sometimes they’re just downright disappointed and upset and angry that somehow I’ve disproved them. What should it matter about disproving you? I cannot go and do an exorcism when that’s not what’s required. I could do more harm than good.
I think what’s fair to say, I get lots of desperate people, and they’re suffering, every one of them suffering, and it’s a matter of ‘what’s the cause of the suffering’. That’s my role—what’s the root cause of their suffering? It’s not like giving them the penicillin shot in the ER because, you know, that’s going to make them feel better. I get lots of requests for exorcism. I say that I don’t do them on demand. It doesn’t work that way.”
I think it important here that Fr. Thomas spoke of discernment. As he said, some Christian movements tend to focus only on the spiritual when signs present themselves, but there could be any number of naturalistic maladies at play—mental illness, physical problems, etc. Ignoring these could have devastating consequences for the sufferer. So, again, discernment is key—we must not be too quick to see the demonic in everything. They don’t hold that much power.
“You occupy a unique place as a Vatican-trained exorcist who has worked as an advisor to Hollywood. What do you think of movies and literature that depict exorcism, and do you think it’s useful for art to bring us face-to-face with personified evil?”
I don’t know how carefully Hollywood consults experts in the field when they are doing a movie in the area of personified evil. I don’t know how well they are bringing in consultants like how I was brought in on ‘The Rite’. I don’t know if they do that or if they just look at what other movies have done and duplicate certain things with their storylines. I just know in my case they brought me in as a consultant because they wanted accuracy, which I think they needed to have.
However, I will say this; at one point, they weren’t going to bring me in at all, and I said, ‘How do you expect Anthony Hopkins to know what he’s supposed to do?’ I remember that the initial response was ‘I think we’ve got it covered’. And I said that he does not have the first, foggiest idea of what to do, because he doesn’t know what it means to be an exorcist. I do. If you think he can just wing this, you’ll be very disappointed. He’s a superb actor; he’s one of the few greats in Hollywood. However, he doesn’t know what it means to be an exorcist, which is what I came on set to do with him, to talk about my experiences and how to really feel the role.
It’s one thing to play the role of a father or the role of something generic, but when you’re going to be cast in the role of something that’s very specific and rather rare, if you want the movie to be about faith—which I think was the sincere attempt—you need to consult. The movie was not stressed on horror, which disappointed some, and I’m glad it wasn’t stressed on horror because what got more attention was the dilemma of the struggle of faith. And I think that was something that spoke to a lot of people. There’s lots of people in our culture that think it’s all make-believe. If people saw what I saw, they’d be at church every single week.”
What I took from this is that the arts, when they strive to accurately depict the demonic, remind us of spiritual realities—they remind us of the unseen. If a movie or book simply exists to frighten and shock without thought for purpose and truthfulness, well, there’s not much value in that beyond a few scares.
Sometimes, though, we need to be brought face-to-face with the darkness to know what we’re up against, and art can do that for us.
Our limited time having drawn to a close, I bid farewell to Fr. Thomas, and was afterward left with a single, all-encompassing conclusion: we have look to God rather than ourselves in order to be protected. Everything Fr. Thomas recommended as protection revolved around establishing and deepening a relationship with God, on absolutely depending on Him. All authority to cast out the demonic flows down from God.
There’s a certain poetry in this, a divine symmetry. Satan lost his place in heaven because of his pride. When we do the opposite, when we make ourselves small and learn to depend, utterly, upon God, we find protection from Satan—our humility is his destruction. This is why even the archangel Michael “did not presume to bring a slanderous judgment against” Satan in Jude 1:9, but rather said “The Lord rebuke you”.
Knowledge has the power to erase fear. Go and fear not—you now know how to protect yourself from those that fell from heaven so long ago.