Lucifer, King of Hell by Gustave Doré

Following the Call

Fr. Gary Thomas, America’s top exorcist whose ministry was chronicled in the book and film The Rite, talks to Traces about healing, hope, and the power of the priesthood.
Damian Bacich

His parish, Sacred Heart, lies south of San Francisco, in the area known for cutting-edge companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook. Fr. Gary is 60 years old, and has served as a priest of the Roman Catholic diocese of San Jose, California, since his ordination in 1983. Named exorcist of the diocese in 2005, he has become a popular speaker across the U.S., thanks in part to the increase in exorcisms performed throughout the world in recent years. “Everyone has an opinion on the topic and very few people know much about it.” Yet even the limelight cast by the film The Rite (based on a book about his life story) seems to have no effect on him. His desire to clarify this oft-misunderstood aspect of the Church’s mission shows itself in a calm and serious delivery, with a touch of levity, in which a great love for the Lord and the person in need captures the stage.

How did you become an exorcist?
The Pope issued a mandate in February of 2004 instructing every bishop to select and train a priest to be an exorcist. In 2005, our bishop, after receiving a number of requests for investigations into potential exorcisms, decided to appoint a priest, and the priest he approached, after some very serious thought and prayer, declined. After hearing about this, I just simply said, “I can do that.” So the bishop appointed me. Providentially, I was getting ready to go on a year’s sabbatical to Rome and to Spain, and I was directed to a course in Rome on exorcism. While there, I asked one of the nine exorcists in Rome if he would apprentice me, which he did.

What does an exorcist do?
Firstly, he discerns for people who are struggling with potential symptoms of the demonic, whether they are of a preternatural or of a psychological order. People call me all the time and say, “I need an exorcism.” But I don’t do exorcisms on demand. I help discern whether or not the root cause of their suffering is demonic, psychological/psychiatric, a combination of the two, or something else. Secondly, I perform the solemn rite of exorcism when appropriate. Thirdly, I coordinate a discernment team involving a doctor, a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a prayer team, along with other experts and designated individuals, as needed. And the fourth thing that has become part of the job description is catechesis. I give talks on the local and national level to help people better understand and appreciate this healing ministry of our Church.

What do you mean by “healing ministry”?
When we pray over people, we’re praying for restoration–for their emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical, mental restoration. When Jesus healed, He restored people. He restored people from death to life; He restored their sight and hearing; He restored hope to people; and to outcasts, He restored a sense of community.

In the book The Rite, one of the things I noticed is that some people want exorcism, but are not willing to follow the basic advice you give them, such as frequenting the sacraments or adopting a prayer life.
In the twelfth chapter of Matthew, Jesus says that if the house is swept clean, the demons will come back sevenfold. That is a way of saying that if God’s grace has not replaced that emptiness, the demons are going to come back worse than before, something I’ve personally witnessed. So if a person says, “I have these symptoms,” but they’re not willing to do anything about it, not willing to take the medicine to get well, God is not going to intrude into that decision. When you say, “Go back to Mass, get back into a fortified position sacramentally, get back into a prayer life, conduct yourself in a way that would be pleasing to God,” those are all part of our “armor.” If people don’t arm themselves then God is limited in what He can do–while certainly He is unlimited, He is limited because of the lack of cooperation on our part.

Many people would agree that evil exists, but the idea of evil personified might seem a little bit fantastic to the educated person of today…
The forward in the Ritual of Exorcism says you must consult experts, you must proceed cautiously, you must be very careful with the use of the rite of exorcism. You must involve the whole Church, and it must be done with great discretion and care. I think the stereotypical images that people have of this ministry are that it is oftentimes performed by very fringy people and that there is too much Hollywood drama attached to it to be real. And because of the very scientific world we live in, the notion of demons and spirits just falls on deaf ears. So when you start to talk to the media, which I have done so frequently, and you say to them, “I involve a whole array of points of view, of optics and eyes and ears,” and then you tell them specifically, “I involve psychiatry, I involve psychology, I involve medicine when needed, and prayer,” they take a step back and say, “This does have more legitimacy than I was willing to give it.”

Why do you begin your public talks with the statement that Satan has already been defeated?
I think it’s important to begin with good news. And that is a provocative statement: “The good news is that Satan has been defeated.” Of course, the natural answer would be, “Who says so?” or, “How do you know?” The questions that come from the provocation of that statement then allow me to give people a very clear catechetical answer: “Because of the Cross.” This topic is so solicitous of gloom, doom, suffering pain, and fear, that when I leave I want people to have been both educated and hope-filled. There are two bookends to what I say: one, we have every reason to hope, and two, don’t be afraid. And sandwiched between them, you talk about the reality of Satan and the cosmic battle going on since the expulsion of Satan from heaven.

Why haven’t we heard much about this?
I don’t think it was avoided deliberately. I am not a Church historian but in growing up I observed that we went from a Church that was very categorical and compartmentalized in terms of sin, and in terms of Christ, to a very different, more reachable, touchable God. When we began preaching on the loving side of God in Christ more than the judgmental side of God in Christ, we shifted our understanding of sin from very defined to relatively undefined. The catechism of the Church didn’t change, but how we talked about sin changed. As sin changed, Satan changed, because Satan and sin are related. Moving from very clear parameters around mortal and venial sin to something that’s very vague made Satan vague. Also, in the Mass of Pope Paul VI, we took out the Pope Leo prayer, the St. Michael prayer. So we took out the consciousness of our need to be vigilant.

How has carrying out this ministry affected your own faith?
Firstly, it has made me profoundly aware of the cosmic battle, something I already knew at one level and now I know at a far deeper level. Secondly, it has made me more profoundly aware of the power of the priesthood. In the seminary, we were formed in a much more functional rather than theological priesthood. I don’t ever remember having conversations on the satanic, or on the cosmic battle. I never had a course on eschatology. I don’t know why; I just never did. It was much more of a “how-to” than a “why.”

"When Jesus healed, He restored people from death to life; He restored hope to people; and to outcasts, He restored a sense of community."

What is this power of the priesthood?
I discovered a power to battle evil. What do priests do? They are called to preach, teach, and sanctify. We preach the Scriptures, we catechize and instruct people in what it means to be part of the Church, we make people holy, and we make things holy. So we celebrate the sacraments and we bless. In the seminary, we were not really made aware of that threepronged understanding of our role. So we priests do have a lot of power, in being able to influence people a great deal, but we also have much power when we come up against evil. I don’t think we are always aware of that.

At one point, your own vocation was reawakened…
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a priest, and I felt very comfortable around the priests in my parish. But when the Vatican Council came, there was uncertainty, even amongst the priests and nuns. You could see it in the way they ministered. There was a lot of ambivalence. That’s why I just kind of lost interest. It wasn’t until I was 20 and we had a new pastor, and then a deacon, come to my parish, both of whom were very different than any I had met before, that I started to think about the priesthood again.

Different in what sense?
They had a much clearer sense of their identity. I never quit being Catholic and I never quit being involved in the parish, but from the time I was 14 to the time I was 20, the priests I knew just didn’t seem very sure of themselves. And this made me unsure. The vocation was reawakened was when I came in contact with those two men. Then I moved to begin my new job, and had time to think about what I was doing. I grew increasingly disenchanted with the career I had started–I wasn’t challenged. And I used to say to myself, “I know I’m destined to do something different, much more than this.”

What is the greatest source of aid for your vocation as a priest and your ministry as exorcist?
Having a prayer life and associating with people who have been really supportive and who are also believers. I have the support of my priests’ support group, I have the support of the priests of the diocese, I have the support of my family, and I have the support of a prayer team, which gets together for dinner every month. We get together sometimes four, five, six times a month, but at least once a month. And we certainly all pray together. So I would say prayer and a community of support are key.