|Baglio's book, The Rite, became the inspiration for a motion picture.|
January 3, 2011. Rome, Italy. For the past few years,
the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome has hosted
a course on exorcism, intended mainly for priests, but also
open to lay people. After journalist Matt Baglio attended the
course, he wrote a book entitled The Rite: The Making
of a Modern Exorcist, detailing his experiences shadowing an exorcist-in-training.
The book was then adapted into a screenplay, The Rite,
starring Anthony Hopkins, which will be in theaters this January
The following interview with Matt Baglio, reprinted with permission, explains
how the book came to be and how the author’s
experiences led him to a completely new perspective on what
exorcism is all about.
Shadowing an Exorcist
A movie starring
Anthony Hopkins explores exorcism. The man who wrote the book
behind the film talks about what chasing the devil really
BY TRISH BAILEY DE ARCEO
Matt Baglio’s curiosity was piqued.
course at a Vatican-affiliated university in Rome? It was an
unusual topic. As an American journalist living in the Eternal
City, he thought it might make for an interesting article;
as a non-practicing Catholic at the time, he approached it
with some skepticism.
Taught by exorcists and experts in theology, satanic
cults, criminology and psychology, the course he took challenged many
of his assumptions. But what really intrigued him was the
openness and honesty of a fellow student, Father Gary Thomas,
a priest from the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., whose
bishop, Patrick McGrath, had asked him to undergo training as
As the two got to know each other,
a friendship — and a book — were born. The
book, in turn, gave rise to a major film starring
Anthony Hopkins, The Rite, to be released in theaters Jan.
Baglio’s book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,
follows Father Thomas through his hands-on training with an experienced
exorcist in Rome and accompanies him on his first exorcisms.
At the same time, Baglio’s research provides a more detailed
understanding of the history, rites and rituals of exorcism according
to Catholic teaching.
Baglio spoke about some of the insights he
gained from researching and writing The Rite.
It’s unusual for a
layperson to write about a topic such as exorcism. What
were you hoping to achieve with this book?
the book to be as real as possible. Too often
in the past, most books on the topic have fallen
into two categories — either they were written by priests
who believe 100% or they are written by skeptics who
don’t want to believe. I fell right in the middle.
I didn’t discount the possibility that it was real, but
there were some aspects that didn’t convince me.
admit that 90% of the people who come to see
them don’t need an exorcism. I tried to focus my
research on that remaining 10% and came to the conclusion
that even though some of these cases could be explained,
there were still a few that remained outside the scientifically
Being naturally curious, I wanted to understand what was going
on. I wanted to shine a light on this phenomenon
so that believers and skeptics could look at this topic
and say, “I’ve never seen it talked about like this
In addition, while I had read books on the theology
of exorcism before, I’d never read a book about what
it was like to actually be an exorcist, and the
book was really an attempt to present the topic through
the eyes of this journey.
What did you learn that
changed your previous assumptions about exorcism?
One was that the
exorcist has to be the ultimate skeptic. At first, the
skepticism surprised me, but then it made sense — because
the last thing you want is a priest who sees
the demon behind every corner.
I was also surprised by the
sophistication of many of the exorcists; they had doctorates, spoke
many languages, and they didn’t have the fundamentalist approach I
had expected. Every exorcist I talked to was also incredibly
humble. They weren’t these action-hero types you’d expect. Some of
them were very old, frail, shy and timid. During an
exorcism, they pray the ritual very calmly and quietly. Hollywood
wants the dramatic elements; they want the holy water to
hit the person, the scream, the cross, etc., but it’s
usually not like that.
Another was that exorcism is not a
one-shot deal. People think that once the exorcist begins praying
the ritual, he doesn’t stop until it’s over, and if
the demon isn’t cast out, the exorcism was a failure.
But it’s really a journey, a process.
Many people think that
exorcism is on the fringe. I was surprised to learn
that the theology behind exorcism isn’t. Exorcism was central to
what Jesus was trying to do in his public ministry.
There was spiritual warfare in the early Church, and it
has been passed on to priests today who are now
It’s important to note that exorcism works in tandem with
the sacraments, especially reconciliation. The goal is to weaken the
power of the demon so that the person can return
to practicing their faith, praying and receiving the sacraments.
does an exorcist distinguish between cases of psychological illness and
cases of demonic possession?
Exorcists have to work with mental-health
experts, because there is a fine line between mental illness
and demonic possession, and it can be difficult to discern.
Someone who says he hears voices or demons talking to
him could be suffering from schizophrenia, for example.
The priest has
to be cautious, and there has to be a process.
To discern the presence of an evil spirit, they look
for various signs: First, they have an interview with the
person, then they send the person to see a mental-health
specialist, and then the person comes back and the exorcist
begins to pray blessings over them.
Exorcism is not an exact
science. There’s a lot of mystery to it. In the
end, everything depends on the will of God and on
the person’s free cooperation.
How do people become victims of
demonic possession in the first place?
It’s said there are
various ways a person can open a doorway and become
possessed. Exorcists told me that it’s mainly people who take
their focus away from God, who don’t practice their faith,
go to church or receive the sacraments.
According to exorcists,
the No. 1 reason is an involvement in the occult.
There could be other factors at work, such as a
curse or being part of a Satanic cult.
Every case is
different, but the one common factor seems to be that
it’s about personal choice, personal responsibility. I had one exorcist
tell me that demonic possession isn’t a disease; there are
no predisposed qualities that a person has that can cause
them to become attacked by a demon. A person needs
to open up a doorway, and so in this way,
we must be aware of our actions and try to
avoid grave sins.
This also means that in order for
a person to become liberated they have to be proactive
and correct the behaviors or actions that may have led
them into becoming a victim in the first place.
is the movie to the spirit of the book? We
know that the character of Father Gary Thomas was changed
from a priest to a young seminarian having doubts about
his faith; that’s one major departure from the book. Does
the movie present the priesthood and the theology of exorcism
The movie is slightly different from the book, but
there’s nothing in the movie that isn’t theologically posited in
the book, so they’re not pulling things out of left
field. The filmmakers have tried to be very faithful to
the theology of the Church on the dynamics of demonic
The message is very similar to my book, which
is this idea that evil likes to stay hidden, but
it’s through belief, through faith, that you’re able to overcome
I helped on the set of the film, and Father
Gary Thomas was also on the set. He said the
exorcisms they were filming were “very believable.” They were very
careful to make this film as real as possible. When
you’re dealing with this topic, you don’t have to sensationalize
it too much. The topic is dramatic enough.
Register correspondent Trish
Bailey de Arceo writes from Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico.