When he first heard about a Vatican-sponsored course on exorcism for priests, journalist Matt Baglio was intrigued by the idea of this ancient ritual taking place in the modern world. In his new book, The Rite, Baglio follows American priest Father Gary — sent to Rome to train as an exorcist — and his apprenticeship with Father Carmine. Baglio talked to TIME about belief, skeptical priests and the particulars of the exorcism ritual.
TIME: The thing that inspired this book was a class on exorcism. Tell me about it.
BAGLIO: I was a freelance journalist living in Rome and had heard about this course called Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation. It was organized by the Legion of Christ and their school, the Regina Apostolorum, which is Vatican-affiliated. Not knowing anything about exorcism or if the Church even still believed in it, I was intrigued by the idea of a university-level course teaching priests about exorcism.
What were your first thoughts about the class? Did you think, Wait a minute, this is the 21st century. Why are we even still talking about exorcism?
Absolutely. My first thought was, Why is the church doing this class? Is it just a p.r. stunt? But then I saw that a lot of the course work itself was very theologically and historically based. None of it was practical, which is why Father Gary had to eventually go out and apprentice with a veteran exorcist, Father Carmine. The course would bring in experts — experts in satanic cults, experts in criminology, they even had a psychiatrist come in to talk to the priests about the differences between the various mental illnesses that could be confused for demonic possession vs. what the church says is actually demonic possession. (See photos of Pope Benedict XVI.)
As we understand more and more about multiple personalities, epilepsy, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, doesn't demonic possession get explained away?
There's a definite degree to which that's true. You can't deny the fact that many illnesses in the past were misunderstood. The church has to be very careful about confusing mental illness with demonic possession.
When you started the book, did you lean one way or another in terms of whether or not you believed in the possibility of exorcism?
I came at this topic very journalistically, not having an opinion for or against it. I wanted to really understand what it is and why the church still believes in it. But even exorcists themselves admit that 90% of the people that come to see them don't need an exorcism. There still remains a small percentage of cases, however, involving levitation, mind-reading and other paranormal phenomena that can't be explained through science. Maybe one day.
You write about how most priests don't even like to talk about exorcism, that they find the idea distasteful. Why is that?
There's a lot of taboo when it comes to the devil and evil itself. Parishioners don't want to hear about Satan and evil and sin. Father Gary, he's in his 50s, and he was ordained in the late '70s. During that period, you had a lot of turmoil in conjunction with Vatican II shaking up the church and getting rid of many very old traditions, the Latin mass and those sorts of things. But you have to look at priests themselves as being creatures of their environment. Coupled with that were all this these new psychoanalytical approaches that were uncovering a lot of things that in the past were considered to be in the realm of the spiritual. I think a lot of priests saw that and said, Let's just keep becoming more modern and more open and don't worry about all these "medieval things."
And as a result, many exorcists are marginalized within the church.
I had priests tell me that their superiors belittled the fact that they were exorcists. Interestingly, though, the newer generation of priests are more responsive to the reality of the devil, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that John Paul II was and Pope Benedict XVI is a little more conservative, so the younger seminarians are a little less apt to ridicule. The older priests of Father Gary's generation didn't want to talk about it.
So how is a priest supposed to figure out that an exorcism is warranted? How do they judge who is and who isn't a worthy candidate?
The ritual stipulates that there are three signs that the priest has to look for: abnormal strength, the ability to understand unknown languages and the knowledge of hidden things. But they're very arbitrary, even those things. So they have to be in concert with something else. And typically what priests look for is what they call the aversion to the sacred, which is a person's inability to pray, to say the name of Jesus or Mary, to even look at the priest. Typically, when the person comes to see them, it's the last thing they want to do. They tend to have gone to see many doctors in search of a medical cure for whatever is afflicting them. They don't believe that the problem is demonic. They don't come in and say, "Father, I'm being attacked by demons. You need to pray over me." When someone says that to them, the priests immediately discounts that the problem is demonic.
So what happens during the exorcism rite?
The ritual, as its written, has several different stages to it. You say the litany of saints, you read the Gospel, you say a homily. The priest is allowed to bring in other elements if he wants to — the renewal of the baptismal vows, for example. But at the core of it are the exorcism prayers themselves, which are composed of the imperative and the depreciatory. The depreciatory involves the exorcist entreating God — "God, come down and bless this person." The imperative is the command, "I command you to leave this person." If you were to do the whole thing from start to finish, it would take out about an hour. But none of the priests that I followed in Rome do it like that. Almost all of them get rid of everything except the exorcism prayers. And the reason they do that is because they don't have time. They have a waiting room of 20 people. That's one day. The next day they have another 20 people.
Most of the exorcisms that Father Gary witnesses are fairly low-key. What happens during the dramatic ones?
If an exorcist sees 100 people, there are only going to be 2 or 3 that are dramatic. And I would characterize those as being when the person actually speaks to the exorcist. Quite often they'll be burping or belching or coughing or yawning. There's moaning and screaming too. But in the stronger cases, in almost every instance, you'll have the voice. The person will speak in a demonic voice, and they'll say things like, "This person belongs to us," "You have no power over us," "You can't defeat us." They are usually very dramatic in the sense that the person will be screaming at the top of their lungs. There can also be shaking. Picture a person sitting in a chair with their arms sticking straight out, their legs sticking straight out, convulsing. That's common.
But usually, the more dramatic cases deal with people who are screaming, using their voice, shoving and punching, getting up, smacking their head against the wall — just very violent. And that voice is beyond a simple mimic of a strange voice. It's very uncanny, very unnatural. And then, of course, there's vomiting, which is common. Father Carmine saw a case where a woman vomited up a small black toad that was still alive. He went to catch it, and it dissolved into saliva. I had another priest who I talked to who dealt with a woman who vomited up seven little black nails, six of which dissolved into this black liquid. Father Carmine saw a woman vomiting up buckets of human sperm.
Don't you think that regardless of your book or the testimonials by these priests, there are many people who aren't going to believe that exorcism is valid?
For people to just outright discount it is a little premature. I think that there's clearly something going on here. Even if you don't believe in the devil, how do you explain the paranormal? I would dearly love if science could really explain some of these things, but until then, the question is just too big to ignore.