In Anthony Hopkins' latest goosebump-raising movie, the actor plays an aging exorcist who trains a seminarian in the ways of casting out demons.
The film, “The Rite,” is loosely based on a book by the same name. The book covered the real-life exorcism training of a California priest, the Rev. Gary Thomas, in Rome. The movie hit theaters this weekend.
It's sure to add to a growing public fascination with exorcism. At the same time, there are signs that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is placing a renewed emphasis on the ancient and sometimes controversial practice.
Some Catholic leaders in Rome and the United States are pushing for every diocese to appoint an exorcist. It's estimated that only one or two dozen of the more than 200 U.S. dioceses have official exorcists, but two of them are right here in Nebraska, in Lincoln and Omaha.
In certain Christian traditions, exorcism is the practice of commanding demons in the name of God to leave a person or place. It is not unique to Catholicism. Some evangelical Christians and Pentecostals do it, too. Casting out demons can be part of what's known as deliverance ministry.
Christians trace the practice to Jesus' public ministry as told in the Gospels.
Baptized Catholics likely all have undergone a minor exorcism, though they may not know it. It's a normal part of baptismal rites.
The Catholic Church also has an official Rite of Exorcism for extreme cases of what is believed to be demonic possession. Only a trained priest, with permission of a bishop, is supposed to perform the rite.
The Vatican updated the rite in 1998, the first revision since 1614. Along with the revision, the Church cautioned exorcists to use “the maximum circumspection and prudence” to determine if the person needs psychiatric or psychological care and not an exorcism.
In 2004, the Vatican urged bishops to appoint a trained exorcist in every diocese. That's something that's long been on the books in the Catholic Church as a recommendation, but rare in the United States.
But interest appears to be growing. In November of 2010, 56 bishops and 66 priests attended a two-day conference on exorcism connected with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual meeting in Baltimore. They included the exorcist from the Omaha Archdiocese.
The Lincoln Diocese also has an officially appointed exorcist. Church officials in Omaha and Lincoln would not reveal the names of the exorcists. They said they wanted to protect the privacy of the individuals to whom the priests minister and to protect the exorcists from being inundated with calls.
“This topic is very sensitive in nature to those who are afflicted with this difficulty,” said the Rev. Daniel Rayer, chancellor of the Lincoln Diocese. “If the exorcist's name is publicly known, and it is known they are visiting this priest, it might make them feel uncomfortable about how others see them.”
Church officials also prefer that people first approach their parish priest with concerns about suspected demonic activity.
By e-mail through Rayer, the Lincoln Diocese exorcist said three or four people a year contact him asking for exorcism. Most of them, he said, are not possessed, because people who are tend to avoid the church.
“Those who ask for one are not possessed, but may be very oppressed by the demons who weigh heavily on their emotions and influence their minds with dark thoughts,” the priest wrote. “Possessed persons usually want to stay away from priests and religious ceremonies. Some of these requests are from out of state, so I encourage them to make regular visits for blessings, spiritual direction and conversations with a priest nearby them.”
Sometimes, the Lincoln priest said, he gets calls from parents concerned about their children's rage, despair or depression they cannot overcome.
He usually meets them and prays with them. “Psychological and medical exam results are helpful to see if serious problems exist without any psychological or physical explanations from the professionals.”
The Lincoln priest said he is contacted about people who “have seen some demonic figures, heard sounds like voices or footsteps, felt touches or have seen objects move on their own.”
“When priests ask me what they should do in those cases who approach them for help, I advise them to meet with the persons, pray with them, bless them, bless their houses, offer Masses for them, encourage them to go to Jesus in the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession frequently, give them daily Bible meditations, have them pray the Rosary and the St. Michael the Archangel prayer daily,” the Lincoln exorcist wrote.
He tells the priests to contact him “if the evil continues” after they've been doing those things for a couple of weeks.
“I almost never hear from the priests again about those cases,” he said.
However, he does have ongoing cases, and some involve monthly appointments. One such case, he said, involves a family whose “young possessed child runs around the house shouting for them to stop praying” when they gather for their evening Rosary.
“Since I have been praying over the child for some months, the child cries out and thrashes with less intensity during the exorcisms and at home, and comes back to normal more quickly after the prayer is finished,” the Lincoln priest said.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, said exorcisms, though rare, have been performed in recent years in the archdiocese. McNeil declined to describe cases, saying that might compromise the privacy of individuals involved.
Typically, someone approaches a pastor to say they know someone who is having problems.
“The pastor would sit down with the person who is having some sort of struggle, or a spiritual struggle, or they feel they're being attacked,” McNeil said.
The pastor typically prays with the person, and might bless his home. Depending on the circumstances, the pastor then might call the chancery about what to do next.
“Most of our pastors don't even know who our exorcist is,” McNeil said. “They'll ask who they should talk to, and we'll make arrangements.”
There's a screening process. It involves finding out the details and duration of what the person is experiencing, what else is happening in his life and whether he has a mental illness. They might consult a psychiatrist or psychologist.
If a medical explanation isn't found and the person doesn't get better, the exorcist gets more involved,
The Rev. Thomas, the California priest whose training inspired the book “The Rite,” said the vast majority of people he sees have mental illnesses, not demonic possession.
He said he works with a team that includes a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
“I have performed exorcisms on five people in the last five years,” Thomas said by phone from his parish in Saratoga, Calif.
He said there can be different types of demonic activity in or toward a person. A possession, he said, means a demon has fully taken over a human body. Lesser levels could involve obsessive thoughts related to the demonic, or a demon's harassment of a person.
Thomas said he believes there's more demonic activity now than in the past because more people are involved with the occult.
“I've been getting a lot of calls from all over the United States and my own diocese,” he said.
He said he refers them to their local bishop, but most dioceses don't have exorcists. Thomas estimated there are only 25 Catholic priest exorcists in the nation.
Thomas studied exorcism in the fall of 2005 and spring of 2006. He took a course on exorcism at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Rome. But he said the course did not equip him for the task. He found an exorcist willing to take him on as an apprentice in Rome for about a month.
A journalist, Matt Baglio, followed Thomas through the class and apprenticeship. Much of the resulting book, “The Rite,” is based on an accurate account of what happened, Thomas said.
The book describes exorcisms that take from a few minutes to a few months. There are scenes where subjects shout in other-worldly voices, cringe and howl when splashed with holy water and go into contortions.
The film takes license with the book, and the story is changed. For example, the movie character based on him is a seminarian with doubts about his faith. Thomas said he was a 50-year-old priest already when he went to Italy, and had no faith crisis.
He said the exorcism scenes are “true to life.” He worked on the movie set for a week, giving technical advice.
The public's perception of exorcism is based on sensational movie scenes. McNeil, the Omaha Archdiocese chancellor, said focusing on those can blind people to much more pervasive, commonplace evil.
“The devil works best by taking advantage of your weaknesses in subtle, everyday ways in mundane living,” he said. “The first line of defense, in our tradition, is the participation in the sacraments, handing ourselves over to God and making a decision to follow Christ — having a prayer life and surrendering to God, instead of surrendering to our temptations.”
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