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God is the ultimate power. The devil is not an equal adversary

A homeschool mom was invited on a press junket to preview THE RITE. The film,starring Anthony Hopkins, was inspired by a true story chronicled in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, in which journalist Matt Baglio followed Fr. Gary from the United States during his training to become an exorcist.

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By Patti Armstrong
Catholic Online (
1/19/2011 (1 decade ago)

Published in Movies

Keywords: devil, deliverance, exorcism, exorcist, demon, catholic

BISMARK, ND (Catholic Online) - Oh the life of a homeschool mom; one never knows what the day will bring.  Add the fact that I'm a freelance writer and author, and anything is possible.

Last month I received a call from a public relations company, inviting me to LA on a press junket to preview the movie THE RITE starring Anthony Hopkins (in theaters January 28). Last February I went on a junket and actually sat right next to Denzel Washington during the press conference portion.  I'm no name dropper or star gazer, but you have to understand that as one that spends most days doing laundry, cleaning bathrooms, trying to figure out what to make for dinner...well, these invitations strike me as humorous.  Yes, proof that God has a sense of humor.  How else do you explain how a homemaker of ten children (down to 5 still at home) gets these occasional passes into other worlds?  

On Second Thought.

I immediately accepted the invitation.  It was not until the next day that fear seeped in.  Let me tell you about the movie and you will understand why.

The movie was inspired by a true story chronicled in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, in which journalist Matt Baglio followed Fr. Gary from the United States during his training to become an exorcist.  He took a class on exorcism at the Pontifical University in Rome, but his real training was under the tutelage of an experienced Italian exorcist. Fr. Gary ended up participating in over eighty exorcisms. It is there that he saw the battle between God and the devil played out in the possessed: demonic voices, vomiting bizarre things such as nails and a frog, and other extreme manifestations like contorting limbs and knowing languages the person never studied. 

Okay, so you see what I'm talking about?  Granted, I've seen some pretty scary bathrooms that needed cleaning in my day, but when it comes to the devil, well, I try to keep him off my radar screen.  But then, I did something that changed the way I thought about the whole devil possession thing.  I interviewed three exorcists.  My idea was to write some background articles to go with the movie review.  After all, exorcism is cloaked in mystery and intrigue.  I didn't want to write just a review on a movie.  I saw this as a chance to educate people and draw them closer into the heart of the Catholic Church.

From my bedroom/office, I had friendly and informative telephone conversations with a bishop and three very down-to-earth priests who happen to be exorcists.  It took my fear away and made me realize that I needed a booster shot in the faith department.  These men, after their ordinations, became in a mystical way, Jesus Christ here on earth.  They fight evil head to head, toe to toe and do not to blink.  Yet, they made me understand, that we do the same thing on a daily basis but just don't always see the extreme drama.

Modern Day Exorcism

The first priest I spoke with was Fr. Gary, the priest that the movie is about.  Referring to his experience in Rome, he said it was more extreme than anything he expected, but stated, "I believed in the devil and possessions, but the reactions during exorcism was more extreme than anything I had expected."  He said.  "I am not afraid to confront someone with a demonic attachment, though. In reality, God is the ultimate power. It is important to say that. They are not equal adversaries."

The training of an exorcist however, is an elusive term for there is no specific training course or book that transforms a priest into an exorcist. Most learn from others in an apprentice-like fashion.  Exorcism was established as a rite with specific prayers, in 1614 and revised by the Vatican in 1998.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as the "liberation from demonic possession through the authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church."  Canon law requires a priest to have the permission of his bishop to perform it. This puts the full weight of the Church behind him.  Apart from exorcisms, this healing ministry also includes deliverance from harassment of evil spirits

Last fall in Baltimore, the U.S bishops held a two-day conference on exorcism and deliverance in an attempt to encourage more priests into this ministry. "The Church has never changed its teaching on exorcism but after the Second Vatican Council, I think many individuals moved away from talking about the devil," said meeting organizer, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, IL, chairman of the bishops Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. 

He said that recent conversations with priests in the ministry, made him realize that they are feeling overburdened by calls outside their area.  "The conference was to help educate and motivate bishops and priests to provide this ministry in their own diocese," he said. "I think every bishop should be prepared to handle these kind of inquiries."

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If there is anything different about a modern day exorcist, it is the use of a deliverance team for support.  When Fr. Gary Thomas returned from Rome, he started a new assignment as a parish pastor. Although Fr. Gary's situation has been made public by the book and movie, most exorcists keep that aspect of their ministry quiet so as not to detract from their primary priestly duties.  "I didn't tell anyone, 'by the way your new pastor is an exorcist, but my second day on the job, the secretary came in and told me, 'There's someone here about an exorcism!'"  

In short order Fr. Gary had to quickly assemble his "healing" team to include a physician, clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist to evaluate cases.  Often times problems are found to stem from natural causes such as mental illness so they need to be screen carefully.

Fr. Gary stated that the common signs of possessions are behaviors that have no logical explanation such as fluency in a language a person never studied, ability to know secrets they had no way of knowing, extraordinary strength, and an aversion to sacred objects such as the crucifix. "However, the exorcist is the ultimate skeptic," Fr. Gary explained. "An exorcism only happens after everything else has failed. Most of the time, we are dealing with mental health issues." 

A Rare Occurrence

Msgr. John Esseff who has been a priest for 57 years and an exorcist for 53, concurs with that. "Possession is very rare," he said. "I've only seen two cases. But the devil does oppress and obsess, where a person feels a force comes against them."  In such cases, the priest and the team pray for the person and help them to get away from any occult practices they have been involved with which would have opened the door to evil. 

Msgr. Esseff stressed that it's important for people not to focus too much attention on possessions. "The ordinary activity of Satan is temptation," he said.  "That is his M.O. (mode of operation) In the last two petitions of the "Our Father," Jesus teaches us to pray, 'lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil."  It refers to Satan himself and his activity."

Msgr. Esseff has mentored many priests including Fr. Patrick (not his real name).   Like most exorcists, Fr. Patrick works as a parish priest. His involvement in the deliverance and exorcism ministry is kept quiet because that is not his primary duty.  Also, there is a risk that people for all sorts of reasons will overwhelm him with requests every time something goes bump in the night or someone experiences anxiety over evil.  The protocol for handling such cases it for them to go through the bishop's office. 

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Fr. Patrick explained even if a person is not fully possessed there is a lot a priest can do to help relieve someone from demonic harassment. He points out, however, that a person has to want help.  "The priest is there to help when someone can no longer help himself but he still has to renounce evil in his life. It's not magic. I can pray over someone but if he is still involved with the occult, he will continue to be influenced with it."

Bishop Paprocki said the danger of movies and books on exorcism is that it becomes sensationalized and people fail to see that the battle between good and evil takes place in their own lives on a daily basis.  "The remedy that the Church offers from her treasures is the sacraments, blessings, devotions, prayers, and holy water. That is the normal work of the priest."

He stated that people should also be aware of the consequences of their choices particularly with the occult. "Possession is a relationship with a human being and a fallen angel. That is something that people enter into freely. They open a door and enter into a relationship.

After a while the relationship goes sour and it is not always that easy to get out of. Sometimes, it can take awhile for that relationship to be broken.  But if you live a sacramental life, you don't need to worry about the devil." Bishop Paprocki stated that the sacrament of confession is more powerful than an exorcism.  "An exorcism is a help toward grace but the sacraments offer grace."

I had never heard it put that way before; "...confession is more powerful than an exorcism."  Okay, then, what do I (we) need to worry about regarding the devil?  Nothing really. We need to focus on God and immerse ourselves in all the Church has to offer us.  It's so simple but then, isn't that the way God usually works?  The courage these servants of God exuded rubbed off on me.  All I have to do every day is resist temptation and rely on prayer, the sacraments, and all the Catholic treasures to do it.  Piece of cake really--at least in comparison to driving out demons.  We just need to keep our spiritual doors shut to evil and open to God.


Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of ten children including two Kenyan AIDS orphans. She is a speaker and the author of "Catholic Truths for Our Children: A Parent's Guide" (Scepter), "Stories for the Homeschool Heart" and also the children's book, "Dear God, I Don't Get It!" (Bezalel). She was  the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press's Amazing Gracebook series. Her website is

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