Demon Days — the Rise of Exorcism in the Catholic Church
Magical thinking can be dangerous when it tries to treat real world maladies with myth. Historically exorcism in the Catholic Church has risen during periods of stress within the Church.
With a doctorate in astrophysics, Frank (not his real name) considers himself a man of science who relies on research and analysis to make sense of the world. Despite the occult overtones, his body’s violent reaction to the deliverance prayer struck him as an obvious case of cause and effect. He became convinced that he—like the poor souls he’d just read about—was infested with evil spirits.
After reading more books about demonic possession, Frank, a lapsed Catholic at the time, asked around for a priest who might be willing to exorcize him.
In a way Frank was fortunate. Exorcism is experiencing a renaissance in American Catholicism. There are more exorcists in the United States now than at any other time in modern history, according to experts. More than 100 bishops and priests met in Baltimore last November to recruit dozens more.
So Frank didn’t have to look far to find Father Gary Thomas, a gregarious priest in Saratoga, California, a small city on the western slope of Silicon Valley.
In addition to pastoral duties at Sacred Heart Parish, Thomas is the official exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose. He has also become the public face of Catholic exorcism in America, with the book and movie versions of The Rite (Doubleday, 2009), based on his training as an exorcist in Rome.
Frank sat for an hour-long exam conducted by a psychiatrist on Thomas’ “exorcism team,” who concluded that Frank was not suffering from mental illness. Thomas next prayed over Frank, and Frank’s face contorted into a wide yawn. This was interpreted as a sign of his indwelling demons’ aversion to the sacred—a criterion of possession dating to 1614.
Thomas emphasizes the rarity of possession, noting that he has exorcized only five people in five years. More than 80 percent of the people who come to him need therapy, not an exorcist, he says.
What Thomas does not mention is that four of the people he has exorcized gave up midway through the process, frustrated by their lack of improvement. The fifth is Frank, who drives to Sacred Heart for exorcism once every five months and has done so for two and a half years.