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"The Rite" stuff: interview with exorcist Fr. Gary Thomas

 

Since priests and demons frighten me, my colleague Peg Aloi, who in addition to being a fine critic and writer is also a practicing Wiccan, agreed to conduct this interview with the exorcist who inspired the new film "The Rite," which opens Friday.

Here's Peg's story:

Father Gary Thomas is the subject of Matt Baglio's book "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist" (Doubleday Religion), which was the inspiration for Mikael Hafstrom's film "The Rite," opening in theatres January 28, 2011. I spoke with Father Thomas on the phone last weekend, and excerpts from our conversation appear below.


Peg Aloi: How long have you been a practicing exorcist? 

Father Gary Thomas: I'm pastor of a parish, but also an exorcist who serves this diocese, and I've been eligible to perform exorcisms for just over four years.

PA: How do feel about the film version of THE RITE? (Interviewer's note: I had not seen the film at the time of this interview)

GT: I went down to L. A. to see it last Tuesday and Anthony Hopkins and I sat down and watched it together, just the two of us. He's very comfortable to be around, very down to earth. I was also on the set with Anthony in Budapest; they were being very anal about wanting it to be accurate.

I think it's a very well done movie; it's really a movie about faith. They really took some license with some things but there's nothing I am ashamed of or appalled by or that I found incredulous beyond possibility. I mean, there's no special effects, no green pea soup, no spinning, no levitation.

 

PA: So do you think it's scary?

GT: This is not a horror film, although there are scenes that, if you see the trailers, they don't really match the movie as a whole and they make it seem more like horror. I've even been telling some of my parishioners that there are scenes that are somewhat startling. But there is nothing to that movie that I could consider to be horror or gore. There is scene where Rosario, the character who is possessed, spits up nails. In my experience I have never actually seen that, and the priest I trained with had never seen that, but another priest in Rome told me himself that he had seen that more than once.

PA: There have been some notable films dealing with exorcism and the Catholic Church. Have you seen any of them and what did you think?

GT: I‘ve seen the original of course, "The Exorcist."

 

And then a few months ago I saw "The Last Exorcism."


PA: Did you like it?

Actually I thought it was a pretty well done movie. It's a movie about satanic cults, but you don't know that until the last scene. Another priest went with me and he didn't get it.

PA: I actually liked that film, although it has some flaws, and I thought the ending was really interesting, I wasn't expecting it.

GT: I don't tend to go to moves about those kinds of things as a rule. I sometimes use current movies as bylines for my homilies. Like "Hereafter," which I liked, and "127 Hours," which is a movie about realizing you can't live a human life all by yourself, out of the nature that God has made us, we are meant to be in relationships, and you can't say "I don't need anyone."

PA: So you don't like horror films?

GT: Those two I mentioned are the only two demonic movies I've seen I can remember. But it does seem like there are more of them coming out. Like that film a few months ago, "Devil." 

 

I emailed the producer of "The Rite" and asked him if he had noticed all these other films coming out that had a similar theme.

PA: What implications do you think this trend holds for our culture? From a religious perspective, what does this mean?

GT: I can't give you an opinion other than to say, I think in general humans by nature have a spiritual component. And I don't think it's even about denominations or religious institutions, I think by nature we are very spiritual.  I also think there is a great hunger for spiritual involvement and for some people traditional religion just doesn't work out, and hasn't for a while now. I have a homily all about how the institutions in our society have failed us: the government, the car companies, the banks, the Church. And not just the Catholic Church in terms of what we were talking about earlier, but the Church in general. The Catholics are just the biggest moving target right now, and it will take us at least twenty years, an entire generation, to recover from it.

People want to trust, but who do you believe? What news network even tells you the truth? I have to say the closest thing to the truth I have found in the news is watching Jim Lehrer. He knows how to ask questions. I've never understood why people like Larry King so much,

 

I think he's one of the worst interviewers out there, and yet he's been so successful. What I like about Jim Lehrer is he seems to be apolitical. All these guys on Fox and CNN, I already know where they sit on the issues, I don't care what Hannity and all these guys have to say. I don't really want to listen to their editorial stuff, let me decide. News should not be about just opinions.

When this movie comes out, I've been interviewed by loads of people, but I keep wondering, are the things I've said going to really appear in the way I said them? Everything is just sound bytes now. Who do you believe? I think especially with a subject like this there could easily be a perfect storm of hype around it, and what I say can be misinterpreted, so who do you trust to give an accurate picture? The reputation of the Church is already in trouble. I'm not saying we're going to hell in a hand basket, but there are days when I just want to retreat from it all. All you can do is reward and encourage good behavior; I learned that long ago and I have never forgotten it. That is the only way you can build trust is to keep repeating the same behavior over and over again and encourage people to do the right thing.

PA: Do you think the film will be received well?

GT: I hope so. I think they did a good job. But it went through seven rewrites before I signed on.

PA: Really? What were your objections?

GT: There were a lot of factors, like Ted Turner's public antipathy towards Christianity. The writer's strike was coming. I said to Beau [Flynn, one of the producers], I like him a lot, but I said "You know what your industry is like, and I'm not signing anything until I read it." I basically said, you know, I don't mean to be disrespectful but I don't even know you, and your industry basically hates everything I stand for. But in the end they wanted to make an accurate movie, not a horror movie. I would not normally go see it, because it looks like a horror film. But I do think it's well done. You see a human side of the priest. I think it's a good story. 

To read my entire interview, including Father Thomas's comments on satanic cults in America, Cardinal Bernard Law, and assorted other public figures from Sean Hannity to Ted Turner, please visit my media blog The Witching Hour.

 

 

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