Quick raise your hand if you think you know something about exorcisms. Now put down your hand if what you have learned has mostly come from Hollywood and the movies. I’m guessing there are not many hands left up out there. Alas, our collective knowledge about the rite of exorcism, ritely (poor pun I know) or wrongly, has, for the most part, been “cast” (I really can’t help myself) by filmmakers during the last thirty years.
Whether Hollywood’s latest attempt to grapple with the rite of exorcism is any more accurate than its predecessors is a matter of doubt. Doubt is, in fact, a central theme of The Rite, opening today in theaters nationwide. The film tells the story of Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donaghue), an American seminarian who travels to Rome to study the rite of exorcism. Kovak doubts the reality of demonic possession, placing his faith instead in modern psychiatry.
Kovak is sent to apprentice with the “unorthodox” (oh why must the gritty priest-heroes always be “unorthodox”?) and experienced exorcist Fr. Lucas (Sir Anthony Hopkins) who challenges Kovak’s disbelief with both argument: “Does a thief turn on the lights when he’s robbing your house? No, he prefers you to believe he’s not there—like the Devil,” and by example: Casting out the demons from a young girl who had been impregnated by her father.
The producers of the film have billed it as, “Inspired by true events,” which will, no doubt, leave many moviegoers bedeviled as to what in the film is real and what is made-up. Originally the story of The Rite began as a book proposal by Matt Baglio, a reporter living in Rome who wanted, as a Catholic, to understand the motives behind the Vatican’s 2007 plan to reinstruct the clergy on the rite of exorcism with the goal of installing an exorcist in every diocese worldwide. During his research Baglio befriended and shadowed an American priest, Fr. Gary Thomas, who was sent by his bishop to take exorcism classes in Rome in 2005.
The film is purportedly based—loosely—on Fr. Gary’s experience in Rome and his training with Italian exorcist Fr. Carmine De Filippis, but the fictional character of Michael Kovak and the very real Fr. Gary seem little alike. While Kovak doubts, Fr. Gary faithfully reports that the Devil is in indeed real. And while the exorcist in the film are portrayed as “pushing the darkest edges of his spirituality in the service of God” to quote the press release, Fr. Gary describes an experience much more methodical and at times bureaucratic.
“Not everybody who calls me is in need of an exorcism,” said Father Gary. “They may think they are. My role is to discern. I have a team to help me: a doctor, a clinician, a psychiatrist, and two priests. Most of the time, the stuff they come up with is not diabolical. It is about mental health. Occasionally it is about mental health and diabolical running side by side. And even more occasionally it is in the diabolical-realm.”
Michael Kovak’s doubt seems to mirror more closely the experience of Matt Baglio in writing his book. I had a chance to speak with Baglio—and nearly everyone else involved in adapting his book into The Rite—while attending a screening of the film in Los Angeles earlier this month. At the start of his research, Baglio believed he would uncover the dark side of the rite and write a book proving that no one really needed an exorcist, just a good visit with a mental health professional. But that changed the more he talked to priests and investigated exorcisms.
“Even though I was raised Catholic, the idea of the manifestation of evil being so explicit in the world I had not come across,” Baglio said. “I also have a psychology degree, so I tend to want to explain things scientifically. But after all the research and after going to Rome and sitting in on a series of exorcisms there, and talking to priests, I don’t see any reason why priests would lie to me. I don’t see why priests would be making up stories. They don’t need to do that. And so it was through their honest reporting that I was convinced these things do exist in the world.”
The film seems “inspired by true events” in another way. The question of the Devil’s existence which looms large in the film seems to reflect confusion about his existence in our wider culture. The cast of the film expressed some of their own doubts to me.
“Most days I struggle with my belief,” said Hopkins. “Like my character Father Lucas in the film says, I don’t know if I believe in God, Santa Claus or Tinker Bell! But I do feel this scratch of God’s fingernail and I am cast out of the darkness back into the light.”
Hopkins said even after making this film he is not sure if there really is a Devil out there, or if some people just choose to be evil. “I don’t know if I believe in an anthropomorphic anything, the Devil or not. In the film I say, ‘By not believing in the Devil won’t protect you from him’, C. S. Lewis also said that. But personally I really don’t know what beliefs I hold.”
Also riding the fence is Colin O’Donoghue (playing Michael Kovak). O’Dohoghue watched priests in Rome perform exorcisms in preparation for the role of Kovak. And even though O’Donoghue was raised Catholic in Drogheda, Ireland, he told me he still struggles with what he believes about true demonic possession.
“I asked one exorcist in Rome how he could tell it was not psychological,” said O’Donoghue. “And the priest told me that he sent them to a psychologist for tests first. And if the psychologist can find no reason for it, well then it is up to the exorcist. And yet I am still on the fence on it. Having been to some of them, I could easily believe, I think, but I could also easily believe that it is psychological.”
Fr. Gary, still an exorcist in Northern California, remains firmly planted on the other side of that fence. While he admits the film is not an accurate portrayal of what happened to him in Rome, Fr. Gary is pleased with how The Rite turned out, and he hopes the film will get people asking questions about one of the least understood rites in the Catholic Church. A greater awareness of the Devil’s actions in the world—and the tools Christ has given his Church to combat him—becomes all the more crucial when, as Fr. Gary explains, “in this country . . . there are more and more people that are involved in idolatry and paganism.”
No doubt the “devil” is in the details. Fr. Gary tells Catholics that if we live a sacramental life, then we really have nothing to fear from the Devil, despite what we may see on the big-screen. While the Church does offer the rite of exorcism in extreme circumstances, our first line of defense against evil is always a good offense. That means simply using what the Church offers all of us; the Sacraments, devotions, blessings, prayers, having and using holy and blessed objects. And remembering simply these words from the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Of that there can be no doubt, ri(gh)te? Amen!
Mark Armstrong lives in North Dakota with his wife Patti and has ten children. He travels the country giving presentations on Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Shroud of Turin at retreats, church events, and conferences. He is also co-author of Amazing Grace for Fathers. Mark is an occasional guest host for both Sean Herriott on Morning Air and The Drew Mariani Show on the Relevant Radio Network, Talk Radio for Your Catholic Life. His website is: RaisingCatholicKids.com.