Between playing “cops and robbers,” a game of baseball, goofing around with friends, or in the silence of his bedroom, he felt it, or did he hear it? Like a quiet whisper, the voice of God drew the grade school boy near and seemed to ask, “Would you serve me?”
For a while, he thought about becoming a priest, but as a high school kid in the middle 1960s, the many Vatican II changes, as well as issues with leadership in his home parish, led Fr. Gary Thomas to follow in his father’s footsteps, the mortuary business.
“Things were in such turmoil in the church, and while I never lost my faith or stopped going to church, I put thoughts of the priesthood on the back burner,” said Fr. Thomas, 57. “I attended the University of San Francisco, and then went to embalmers or mortuary school after that, and served as a mortician for a few years – though I had helped my dad in the business since I was 14.”
Later, when the tugging within his heart intensified, he entered the seminary at 25 and was ordained a Catholic priest for the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., when he was 30 years old. He has served the church for 27 years, the last five as an exorcist.
His chronicled real-life experiences as an exorcist-in-training was the subject of “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” a book written by Matt Baglio in 2009. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O’Donoghue, the movie based on Fr. Thomas’ experiences opens Jan. 28.
The film follows a somewhat skeptical seminary student Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue), sent to study exorcism at the Vatican. Anthony Hopkins plays the part of Fr. Lucas, an Italian priest and veteran exorcist who befriends Kovak and opens his eyes to demonic possession and the need for the rite.
Nothing in his seminary training prepared him for work in dispelling demons, and how he ended up in Rome, as an exorcist apprentice, was one of many of God’s surprises in his life.
“Our bishop was getting more calls back in 2005 by people who wanted to discern what was going on in their lives,” Fr. Thomas said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald three days before the movie was scheduled to open. “So he asked another priest, who is a friend of mine, to study exorcism in Rome, but he declined. So I said I would do it and the bishop appointed me. I took a sabbatical and enrolled in classes at the Regina Apostolorum, sponsored by the Legionnaires of Christ. After just five sessions, I realized that I needed to apprentice under someone. There were only nine exorcists in Rome and it was not easy to find one as a pupil. But, finally, I found one and worked for three and a half months with him.”
After working together for a short time, Fr. Thomas realized that his understanding of Italian was better than the priest’s ability in English, so each week they found someone to translate all the technical aspects so he would be equipped to bring the knowledge home.
As in the movie, Fr. Thomas was skeptical about demonic possession and often chalked it up to phony manifestations or mental disorders, until he stuck around for a while, and realized that demonic possession is not only dangerous, but on the rise.
“I wasn’t scared, but once I knew that what we were dealing with was very real, I became quite interested in helping people,” he said. “The movie’s depiction of exorcism is very real to what I experienced.”
While he has participated in 40 exorcisms as a Vatican-certified exorcist in the past five years, all have been with just five people.
“Most of the time, it takes repeated treatments to fully rid the evil,” he said. “I am currently working with just one person, and it is our hope that with repeated sessions, it will stop.”
Possessions are not as graphic as what is depicted in movies like “The Exorcist,” said Fr. Thomas, adding the priest never goes at it alone. A deliverance team accompanies him, including a physician, a clinical psychiatrist, and a psychologist who are all Roman Catholics that believe in demonic possession.
“I also try to have two priests with me for all of these cases. This system helps me to discern when a person is truly in the realm of the satanic or whether there are certain mental issues that need to be addressed,” he said “One of the greatest areas of concern that I see are charismatic groups who think a member of their group is possessed and will try to exorcise the person. These groups can do a lot of damage to others, especially since most of them are suffering with other problems in their lives, including mental issues.”
Since the book’s release and now with the movie, Fr. Thomas has received more than 300 requests to assess those who think they may have possession issues.
“I try to refer most of the people back to their diocese to find an exorcist in their area,” he said. “But I have probably talked to a hundred people about their situations and referred them for evaluation through mental health organizations first. While most cases involve mental health issues, overall, demonic possession is on the rise and as Catholics, there is much we can do to keep that door closed in our lives.”
The attention has been a strange phenomenon for Fr. Thomas, who is unaccustomed to the fame that came from the book and the movie.
“I tell you, being a celebrity is not what you think it is,” he said, laughing. “But I truly enjoyed my week in Budapest working with Anthony Hopkins and Colin – in fact both came to me prior to the movie and were concerned that they would become demonically attacked, but we talked it out and I told them what I do when it happens to me.”
And nearly every time Fr. Thomas performs an exorcism, he said he is taunted and emotionally attacked by the devil. And each time, he prays the same prayer.
“It isn’t as often as it was in the beginning, but I am attacked – not physically, but in other ways; it is kind of random,” he said, adding, “I always pray, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave me alone,’ and it works every time.”
Fr. Thomas said the strength of faith and prayer life of Catholics has dwindled over the years and those in their 20s, 30s and younger often have miniscule faith. He encourages parents to be strong, faith-filled examples to their children and serve as a good example of what it means to be Roman Catholic.
“We have allowed in paganism and opened the door to the occult in our lives,” he said, “But I am hoping that this movie will draw more people back to the faith. The movie is excellent and the topic is emotionally charged and controversial. While I have received lots of support in my home parish in San Jose, Calif., there has been some negativity, too, but it is a small minority. I think that as we have expunged God out of the marketplace, there is a spiritual longing in all of us. We live in a pop culture where institutional religion is smothered by the wares and cares of the days and there seems to be no opportunity or time for prayer. We are so distracted by the world.”