The Idea List: How do people react when you tell them that you work as an exorcist? Fr. Gary Thomas: It gets peoples’ attention. I am a full-time pastor as well as an exorcist within the Diocese of San Jose, in the Silicon Valley. But it is a very controversial thing to say, it’s somewhat emotionally charged, and most people don’t know a lot about it.
Why do you think it is so emotionally charged? For one thing, the notion of Satan is scary. Part of it is driven by Hollywood, in terms of the movies that have come out since “The Exorcist” in 1973. But the notion of evil is something people relate to. They have a sense of evil, but many do not believe in the Person of Evil. In other words, the notion of an intelligent creature of evil is not believable for many people in today’s society. A lot of people are also skeptical, or have an emotional attachment to that, an emotion of anger or disdain. But most of the emotion comes from the fear of the unknown: Could this type of thing attack me?
Anecdotally, I can confirm that the notion of Satan and evil seems more developed in the United States than in relatively secular Western Europe. Would you agree? Having only lived in Italy for a length of time, I can’t make that comparison. But I will say this about Italy: According to the course that I took, the exorcists in Italy perform approximately 500.000 exorcisms a year. That is because the occult is practiced by a quarter of the population in Italy — a country that is 97% Catholic.
What does it mean to practice the occult? Witchcraft, paganism, palm readings, ouija boards, black magic, white magic, psychics — all that kind of stuff that we would consider divinations: Where you replace God with another means to attain power or knowledge.
In a speech you gave, you described demonic powers as the removal of God and humans stepping into his place. In Catholic tradition, we would understand the Book of Genesis as an allegory. We wouldn’t understand it as absolutely as that the world was created in seven days, we would understand it as that God is the author of all life. And since Jews practiced numerology, seven meant perfection. God creating the world in seven days was a way of expressing that God created the world in a perfect balance. But when Satan, using the medium of a serpent, seduced Adam and Eve, he seduced them into believing that they could be gods unto themselves. Very often, not necessarily consciously, that is what people do when they practice the occult. When people are involved in actual Satanic practices, their allegiance is to a preternatural being subservient to God, rebelling against him.
What do you mean when you say that people “unknowingly” practice the occult? When people come to me and we do discernment, in other words when they say “I need an exorcism, father.” I always say “I don’t do them on demand, it doesn’t work that way.” There is a process, like when you go to the doctor — you don’t expect them to prescribe something without knowing what your symptoms are. In a sense, we do the same thing. During the discernment, I always listen for doorways: What might have been an opening that someone may have used as a way of inviting a demon in. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen deliberately.
How does it happen? t’s rare that somebody is deliberately looking for a relationship with Satan and then comes to me. Occasionally that is what happens: “I did something I was angry about and invoked Satan and made a pact with him.” What happens is that people start playing around with the occult, playing violent video games with demonic themes, those are doorways. Does that mean a demon is necessarily coming? No! It means you are calling out for attention. If you have soul wounds such as abuse or other traumas, they are an opening. And the doorways are the devices people often times use. Far more often than not, people get involved out of curiosity or because classical prayer doesn’t work in the same way. They want immediate results!
Instant gratification? That’s what our society wants, but prayer doesn’t give you immediate responses. In our technological culture, we are used to getting what we want on the push of a button, so people have the same predisposition when it comes to prayer. When people are in crises over God they might turn to the occult because somebody has told them that it will get them an answer, power, wisdom, or insight. That’s why sometimes people use yoga: Not for the purpose of exercise but for enlightenment. When you do that, you open a door and you don’t know what you are opening it to.
From a Catholic perspective, are activities like violent video games or yoga dangerous? Yes, but I have to qualify that. My mum, a very devout Catholic, used to practice yoga, and I told her: “As long as you do it for the purpose of exercise only and you’re not invoking any gods, not doings any of the “om”s, any of the rituals, I don’t see any reason why you can’t do it”. It’s when people do it for power or enlightenment, then it becomes dangerous because you don’t know what you’re invoking. As for violent video games: It’s not about somebody who plays them once, it’s about being on the computer five to six hours a day, mostly children, and become a kind of disciple of it. Even using an ouija board can be an opening. Do I think using it one time can cause a problem? No, but it’s people who make a habit of using it and get good at it. Those people are at risk.
Because they are rejecting God? It doesn’t mean they are intending to reject God. They think “this is cool, I can get my answers this way” and don’t initially recognize the danger of what they are doing or that it is a form of paganism and an affront to God. God is a big boy. He is not going to be ticked off because somebody does it. But his own disposition would be: Direct your prayers and focus on me rather than these artificial, human-made things. Because in the end you end up opening doorways and may not know who is behind them.
You are saying that what can be behind those doorways is evil or the Devil itself, a force you might be letting into your life. Well, it’s more than a force. We teach that evil is personified, an intelligent being who doesn’t just epitomize evil but is the reality of it. We refer to him as Satan. This is related to the story of salvation, as it applies to all Christians, and the cross. Remember that Jesus’ mission was to defeat Satan. And the whole reason for Lucifer becoming Satan was over the incarnation, of God becoming human, taking on our human nature. That was the cause of the rebellion, and it was the decision of the Father to commission his son to save the human race from Satan and what sin brought — which was death. He comes to restore the balance in the universe. For us, it’s more than a force. Some people might say that they don’t believe Satan is a real being. Ok, people can have the options they hold, but that is what we teach.
I read that you consider exorcism a matter of last resort, that you first try to find out whether what people diagnose as possession is not in reality a psychological issue. You are correct, but let me qualify that a little bit: The point of the team is to discern what the cause of a person’s suffering is. Many people jump to the conclusion that they have a demonic problem. It creeps them out, it doesn’t seem medical, it seems outside of the realm of the mental, so they go to the demonic. My role, and that of the team, is to discern the true source: Is it psychological? Psychiatric? Preternatural, medical? Something else? I only perform a solemn exorcism when all of the other means of freeing the person from the demonic attachment have failed.
How do you find out there is a demonic attachment? We can identify by it the six classic signs: An aversion to the sacred, inordinate physical strength a person doesn’t normally possess, speaking a language they have no competency in, knowledge of hidden things, foaming at the mouth, and epileptic-like seizures, usually appearing during deliverance prayer. These are the classic signs, and if those — or one of them — show up, you get people into a regimen of prayer. For Catholics, that includes the sacrament: Holy mass and confession. But also daily prayer, weekly communion, monthly confession. And you set up a time or do a regiment of deliverance prayer to try and cast the demons out. You only go to the formal exorcism once you have done the deliverance work for a while, maybe six months or longer, when it is very clear that you have reached an impasse. That is when I ask the bishop for permission to do a formal exorcism.
What does it consist of? And has it changed over the years? The ritual was authenticated in 1614. Before that time, the Catholic church did not have an authoritative ritual. It has been revised, once in 1998, once in 2004. It’s been largely the same from 1614 to 1998. It was the last ritual in the church that was revised after the Second Vatical Council. It consists of the praying of the Litany of Saints, scripture, prayers directed to God and prayers directed to the demon itself. The Lord’s Prayer and Hail Marys are sprinkled in. And then you can repeat part of the ritual, the prayers to God and to Satan, until you decide you want to end the session. But that is basically what it comes down to.
It seems counterintuitive that there are prayers directed to Satan… As the mandated exorcist of the diocese, I can address Satan directly. That has to do with the authority of apostolic succession. In our tradition, a Bishop is the exorcist of the local diocese by right of his ordination. No one else can perform the solemn exorcism, other than a mandated delegated priest such as me. Bishops can also deputize someone for a time, for a particular individual for example, but not for an ongoing basis. In my case, I am the exorcist on an ongoing basis. I still have to have the permission of the bishop every time I perform an exorcism on a new person.
How many exorcisms have you performed? I have performed it on 12 different people. That doesn’t mean 12 exorcisms. I have done exorcisms on 12 people, but performed probably 60 or 70 exorcisms over ten years. A lot of the people who come have mental problems, not demonic ones. So when we determine that there is nothing demonic, then we try and direct them to one of our therapists. But even part of the discernment is witnessed by one of our therapists.
What if the problems the exorcism is meant to solve aren’t just psychological ones? How do you determine it is demonic possession and not just a chemical imbalance in the brain? You see the manifestations: During prayer, they are rolling their eyes, coughing in a dry, heaving kind of way because of the power of the prayer. Or they are displaying physical strength, where they can’t sit in the chair although being held down, and try to attack me, or they are speaking in a language that they have never spoken before — like Swedish. That’s how you tell the difference. But it’s not done in one session. There is never just one demon, there’s a tribe. Satan assigns a demon, a very powerful one, who then recruits other demons to attach to that person. They are parasitic, gaining temporary life from being attached to us. Because all the rebellious angels, known as demons, are gradually dying. And they know that. They also know that they have no chance of salvation. So they aim to suck the life out of us and try to dissuade as many of us from God as possible. But back to your question: That’s why I have a medical doctor, a clinician, and a psychiatrist — all practicing Catholics who believe in the existence of Satan.
That seems like a bias. I am glad you say that. What that means is that demonic relationship is one more option to consider. It does not mean we’re biased, that we are like the ghostbusters. Most therapists are atheists or agnostics, so it’s not even on their radar. It’s an additional consideration, that’s all. When people come in, I don’t assume anything. When people say “Father, I have a demon”, I don’t answer “Ok, let’s go get ’em.” The exorcist needs to be the ultimate skeptic. It’s not that I don’t believe people, I believe the experiences they describe are true. However, my role is to figure out if what they are experiencing is demonic or mental. We take a very conservative stance, as does the church institutionally.
How so? In the introduction to the rite of exorcism, it says that the exorcist must consult professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists, medical people etc. This is not something that’s a flash in the pan. Sometimes, people struggle with drug addiction. Things like meth or cocaine are doorways. But people who are meth users have often fried their brains and hallucinate. They see demons, hear voices they interpret to be demonic, though they may not be. Then I talk to a toxicologist to find out what I need to know about a meth user. The last thing you want to do is perform an exorcism on someone who doesn’t need it.
Because it will make it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Exactly. It is psychologically damaging. We take this work really seriously. We are not a bunch of cowboys — and I am not suggesting that is what you said — but exorcism is not the wild wild West.
I raised the question because exorcism, from my viewpoint, seems very anachronistic. There are people who think it is all medieval. But it depends on your optics: If you are looking through Christian eyes, in our tradition, Satan has boundaries. He has been defeated. But he has a tribe — and that is in the scriptures. From the Christian perspective, there are spiritual forces you can’t measure, you can’t see, and that may not even be experiential to most. There is a cosmic battle going on that will continue to the end of times — Christ has won the war, but the battles continue.