Transcript of Interview with Matt Baglio about The Rite. This interview and others like it can be found at http://www.catholicspotlight.com
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The Rite at The Catholic Company.
Chris Cash: This is the Catholic Spotlight, the show where we talk about what’s new, cool, and exciting in the Catholic marketplace. I’m your host, Chris Cash, director of eCommerce for catholiccompany.com, your source for all your Catholic needs. Today, in the spotlight, we have Matt Baglio. He is a journalist and an author of a great new book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. This is available currently in hardcover as well as in audio book with Matt as the voice in the audio book and this is a completely true story from beginning to end so that’s what makes this such a fascinating subject, I believe. So Matt, glad to have you on the show!
Matt Baglio: It’s a pleasure to be here, Chris. Thank you for having me.
Chris: So can you tell me a little about just what your background was going into this and why you got involved in trying to journal this journey through exorcism training, right?
Matt Baglio: Right, I mean the book is essentially the story of Father Gary Thomas. He’s an American Catholic priest from California who came here to Rome. I live in Rome. He came here to Rome in 2005 to study to become an exorcist and I met him at a course being taught at the Regina Apostolorum here which is a Vatican-affiliated university. At the time, I was raised Catholic but wasn’t really a practicing Catholic and as a journalist, I was just very curious about the course, the idea that a university level course could be taught to priests and nuns about exorcism and did the tricks to believe in that. I didn’t know anything about exorcism and so I was very curious and I think I really came at this originally thinking this could possibly be an article. I didn’t know Father Gary, I didn’t know that he was at the course and once I had met him and asked him about his journey and his life that I began to see this as an idea for possibly becoming something bigger than an article.
Chris: Now when you started this, did you expect to see a very sensationalistic kind of course or what were your expectations going in?
Matt Baglio: You know, it’s funny but the course is pretty much everything I didn’t expect to see. You know, when you think of exorcism, you think of these Gothic towers or these monasteries, some very shadowy location and instead this was a very modern university and I think I had a lot of my misconceptions reversed on the first day. Most people associate Hollywood films and what they see in Hollywood films with exorcism and I wasn’t any different. I wasn’t discounting because I really wanted to have an objective mind when I went into this so I didn’t have a preconceived bias either way and I was really surprised by what I saw at the course. It was a very modern course, a very modern classroom and they video conferencing and the exorcists themselves who came in to speak, they weren’t anything close to this puritanical or bumbling sort of people that popular culture associates with exorcism. Some of these priests were very, very educated. They had doctorates in canon law, spoke many languages, very well spoken and so I was just very surprised by that and then of course, the teachings of the course themselves and the lectures were spaced out over a four-month period and the topics discussed were very interesting. There was the history, not just the history of the rite of exorcism and why the Church says the prayers of efficacy and bible verses, et cetera going into how Jesus used exorcism but also courses taught by psychologists and psychiatrists and criminologists and anthropologists, people who you wouldn’t normally associate with a Vatican-sponsored course on exorcism and their job was really to come in and help educate these exorcists in training about the differences as they saw them between a mental illness and what the Church says is demonic possession. So these were psychiatrists who themselves believed in the possibility of possession and I was able to talk to them and that was something that I found to be very fascinating, that scientists or psychologists, psychiatrists would believe in the spiritual world.
Chris: And I think it’s important to point out that the big reason that an exorcist would need this background is because the Church does not want to just walk in and exorcise anybody who comes up and says, “I feel like I’m possessed.” They want to point them in the proper direction of “You know what? Go talk to this counselor first and see if you can work through your problems before they necessarily jump to a judgment that this is caused by a demonic possession or maybe not just a possession but also different levels of influence.”
Matt Baglio: That’s right. The Church is very specific about when an exorcist is allowed to pray the ritual and I think one of the first things that Father Gary Thomas learned when he was at the course and certainly one of the courses that I attended, one of the things that was stressed was the idea that the exorcist should be the ultimate skeptic and the reason is because once the priests begins praying the ritual, because it’s sacramental, the ritual of exorcism is sacramental, what it means he’s really praying with the whole weight of the Church behind him and he’s standing in as an official representative of the Church and of course, of the bishop. So in order to get to that level, there needs to be a lot of caution and now that’s just on the side of the Church but also looking at the health of the individual, the ritual itself is very specific and in cautioning the priest that he is not to begin it before he exhausts all the other methods to understand what the cause of the condition is. So it isn’t, I think, what many people would think about exorcism, they think about how the Church, it isn’t that its priests are sitting there, they’re just waiting for people to knock on the door so that they can convince them that they’re being attacked by an evil spirit. It’s quite the opposite actually.
Usually what happens is a person will go to see many doctors. They will spend years trying to receive treatment for these problems that they don’t know where they came from, they don’t know how they got them, how they can get rid of them. No medicine is helping and they’re really feeling desperate and eventually, they go to see a priest and it’s then the priest begins the process of discernment which is how they uncover the presence of an evil spirit and we can go into that later. And it’s through this process then that the person will begin to be prayed over but of course, the priest himself requires further treatment in the sense that they need to rule out any psychiatrist illnesses or any other causes that an overactive imagination, what have you, that the person may be suffering from. In fact, I have one exorcist tell me, they can almost rule out all the cases where the person comes to them and says right off the bat, “I need you to pray over me. I’m possessed by a demon.” Usually, I had an Italian exorcist tell me that he usually knows right away that that’s not case.
Chris: Yeah, I have in the past known someone who had obsessive-compulsive disorder but for many years, they had thought that they were under a spiritual oppression because the spiritual nature of their personal compulsions. So it’s very easy to think that you are being oppressed for many different ailments.
Matt Baglio: Sure, that’s right and there’s other illnesses, schizophrenia and these kinds of things that could have a person hearing voices and as you mentioned so astutely, if they’re a very religious individual then they may characterize these voices as being demonic in nature. So I think that’s where the exorcist has to, among the other questions he asks the individual, he has to understand what’s their background? Are they very religious? Are they coming at this only looking at it through those terms? Another interesting aspect is this notion, sort of cultures of demonic possession as being a form of empowerment for women and many of the exorcists I talked to said that more women and men are coming to see them and there’s various reasons for why that may be but certainly if you look at anthropology, there’s no denying the fact that in certain cultures where women are oppressed and in some respects socially, they use spirit possession as a way of empowering them. And that all plays into the discernments. It’s not easy and that’s why the Catholic Church is careful about when it gives permission for a priest to perform the ritual and why the process of discernment takes time. It isn’t a snap of the fingers. It isn’t some sort of hidden light bulb that goes off of the priest who says, “I feel something and we’re going to go forward with it.” I think, to some extent, that goes on and that does happen but that’s certainly not the official approach that the Church would like to see.
Chris: Now, does an exorcist have to consult with a superior before beginning each individual exorcism?
Matt Baglio: I think according to canon law, they should. According to the Catholic Church, the official exorcist in every diocese is actually the bishop. So many bishops don’t perform exorcism so they relegate that authority to somebody else and that’s usually an exorcist. And the reason this is, is because again, the exorcism is a sacramental and soâ€¦but it’s also a part of accountability. You know when you’re going to a Catholic priest and you’re seeking help in this respect that the bishop is the person who’s going to be able to say yes or no. And this sort of goes all the way back to the 4th century when in early Christianity, anybody could perform an exorcism. This was said to be a power that Jesus gave to anybody who believed in him as a savior and what sort of happened with exorcism in the history of exorcism is in the 4th century, the Church started to set canons and really organize itself with a hierarchy that exorcism was really kind of brought under the control of the bishops because at the time, there were lots of people who were abusing exorcism. There were people who were mixing in their own different incantations and what not that the Church didn’t want to see happening and at the same time, if you look at the history of baptism, baptism is a form of exorcism. It still is today. It’s a minor exorcism but back in the history of the Church, it was much more important and candidates for baptism usually went through a series of exorcisms and because of this official exorcisms and official baptism, there were exorcists appointed. The Church wanted to maintain this sort of a law of standards, if you will. So really, it stands that way today. The priest needs to ask for permission from their bishop before they can proceed but that doesn’t always happen and certainly in the past, I think if you look at in the 1980s and early â€˜90s when there weren’t that many exorcists out there, official exorcists, and people were seeking help, there’s been instances I’ve read about where other exorcists have gone forward without the permission because they’ve claimed that their bishop didn’t give them support in this way or they weren’t appointed or something like that. But typically, they need to be appointed officially by the bishop and they ask the bishop’s permission to proceed.
Chris: Now you mentioned there that in the â€˜80s and â€˜90s there weren’t a lot of exorcists out there. Now John Paul II and I can’t remember the exact timeframe but he made a call for new exorcists to be appointed in places where there weren’t exorcists. Do you what was the impetus of that call and of course, what was the result afterwards?
Matt Baglio: Well, I know that the whole idea, even the whole story of the book, Father Gary Thomas coming to Rome to study to become an exorcist really started because of Pope John Paul II was sending a letter out to all the dioceses in America asking that the bishops appoint an exorcist and that really got things started. He was and his priests’ support group, he didn’t really know anything about exorcism and the bishop was asking another priest in the diocese if he would be interested in being an exorcist but this other priest couldn’t do it and so Father Gary heard about this and said, “You know, I’d be interested in perhaps seeing what that’s all about.” And that came about because of this letter from Pope John Paul II and of course, that’s something that the current Pope Ratzinger is also interested in pursuing. I can’t speak necessarily to their motives but I think it’s just going back a little bit to the traditions of the Church and reminding people that these are beliefs that aren’t something that you can just throw by the wayside. It’s a part of the faith. Certainly, exorcists themselves, the ones that I’ve talked to here in Rome are very adamant about the fact that if you look at what’s going on in pop culture today, they see a shift towards a fascination with the occult and these kinds of things which they say are opening people up to the demonic and they would like to see more exorcists appointed and that’s been something that they’ve been saying for quite some time. So perhaps it’s the fact that they were finally able to get their message heard but either way, it’s definitely something that the hierarchy of the Church would like to see happen, more exorcists appointed.
Chris: All right, well we’re going to take a short break here to hear from our sponsor but we’ll be back in just a minute to hear more from Matt Baglio about The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. This is the Catholic Spotlight.
Chris: And we’re back on the Catholic Spotlight. We’re talking today with Matt Baglio, author of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist as well as the voice behind the audio book on The Rite and so Matt, can you talk to us a little about the reality that you saw, demonic possession and oppression out there in the field as you were working with these exorcists.
Matt Baglio: Sure, again, when I first started this book, I didn’t know anything about exorcism and whether exorcists were still performing the ritual and how that would go and so I think being a very curious person by nature, one of the things that I really wanted to do was to find out the reality. What is it and how does that fit into our modern society, this idea of spirits and prayer and the power of prayer and these kinds of things? You know, it all started really with Father Gary and asking his impressions. In the beginning, he hadn’t seen any exorcisms but of course, he was looking for an exorcist to follow. Meanwhile, I was able to track down as many exorcists I could and just ask their impressions and get their stories and they had of course, amazing things to say about some of the things that they had seen, stories that perhaps some of your listeners may associate with the film The Exorcist. One exorcist told me of a person’s jaw dropping down and shifting over to their ear which made their mouth something like nine inches wide. But for the most part, it’s a very mundane experience and this is certainly what happened when Father Gary began apprenticing to a senior exorcist here which is documented in the book and he was able to participate in about 80 exorcisms here in Rome. The majority of them were quite mild. In some cases, the person didn’t even move. I mean just sat completely still in a chair. Other instances, they got violent. The person was speaking in a gruff guttural voice that didn’t sound human and of course, cursing the exorcist. There were other instances where the person was flopping around on the floor, just odd things happening, speaking in different languages, all these kinds of things. So those were from his recollections and then I was able to myself see about 20 exorcisms and confirm those kinds of experiences as well. I mean I was able to see a woman who, her voice changed and she became a completely different personality and it was a very gruff and guttural voice and it just didn’t sound to me like something that a person would be able to mimic. On top of all of this, you just have this profound sense of suffering. Of course, many people would think, “Gosh, I wouldn’t want to go near that or I wouldn’t want to even hear a person screaming because it creeps me out.” But you really lose that fear pretty quickly when you see that there are people here that are really suffering and the priests are very much just trying to help these people. They usually come in to see the exorcist. They have a story to tell. Their week has been terrible. They’ve got problems going on in their life. They often come to tears. The exorcist is almost in a pastoral way, they’re asking about their weekly prayer life, how their children are doing in school and then they begin the ritual and that’s when things start to happen. I think many people assume that the idea of a person being possessed means that there is this evil spirit living inside the person and that’s not really how it works according to the exorcists I talked to.
And of course, if you look at the theology of the Church, a demon is an incorporeal spirit. It’s a fallen angel so they don’t have physical bodies. That means they don’t exist in a physical sense like we do. So it isn’t that there are these ghostly forms inside a room, they’re really not physically in any place but they’re sort of spiritually everywhere. So when they are possessing somebody, one exorcist described it, they’re connected like a pipe and they sort of send these inputs into these people in these subtle attacks, if you will. They can be voices or thoughts or these kinds of things. But once the ritual begins, that changes and the demon is sort of pulled through the pipe and into the person and that’s where you get these violent reactions where the person’s eyes will roll up or down inside their head and their voice will change and these kinds of things but that doesn’t happen all the time and it doesn’t happen in the beginning. So the person will be sitting in the waiting room, where it’ll be outside and you can have a conversation with them and it happened to me on several occasions. I was out waiting for the exorcism to begin. I was having a conversation with the person; we went inside the room and five minutes later, they were screaming and howling and rolling around on the floor. So I think that’s one of the real misconceptions that I had and the same with Father Gary. Why are these people not manifesting signs that are more obvious on the exterior? Of course on the interior, they’re dealing with these issues but on the exterior, they look fine and then once the ritual begins, they have this transformation that comes over them and then what happens is the demon becomes exhausted by the prayers which are said to be veryâ€¦to hurt the demon and the demon suffers. The demon becomes exhausted and then he detaches and goes back to the pipe and so he leaves the person and then the person will come back, look around, sort of you knowâ€¦in some cases, they’ll know what has happened. In other cases, they will have complete amnesia.
Chris: Now one thing that I have heard talking to other exorcists myself is that often the devil or the demon will try to attack the exorcist in a very personal way, not necessarily through violence but by bringing up old sins or unforgiven, unconfessed sins or things like that no one would else would know but they are trying to distract the exorcist with their own impurity and that’s one of the reasons why an exorcist has to maintain a very high level of purity, receiving confession and so forth right before an exorcism. Did you have any experience with that in particular?
Matt Baglio: Sure. I mean as myself being personally attacked, I would say no but I think the idea that an exorcist needs to be specifically qualified, a priest who is going to perform an exorcism needs to be specifically qualified is definitely something’s that set down in the ritual and the guidelines of the ritual. And it’s true, they should be very spirituallyâ€¦they should be a wholesome, very moral and spiritually strong priest. Usually of a mature age and somebody with experience, life experience that would allow them to stand up to these kinds of things and if you’re going to think about a demon as beingâ€¦as an incorporeal spiritual being that is vastly superior to us in many ways, just as angels are, then you would have to think that okay, well if something like that was going to attack me, how was it going to do it? Was it going to do it in a silly way or is it going to do it in a much more personal way and I think there’s something very interesting in that respect about exorcism because it is very personal.
No exorcism is the same and even if an individual is being prayed over, let’s say by two different exorcists, each exorcist will experience something different and it’s true that an exorcist will be attacked. Father Gary in the book mentions this on several occasions, being himself attacked and there’s various ways that I go in the book that exorcists are attacked. I think the physical ways perhaps overhyped in the media, you know, people being picked up and thrown across a room by some sort of unseen force and this kind of thing. I think it has happened but only once perhaps that I haveâ€¦all the exorcists I’ve talked to. Usually, they will be more subtle and cunning in the way that they attack people and basically, it’s the demon trying to get the exorcist to stop praying the ritual. I mean, the prayers are hurting the demon. They’re bringing it out into the open. Really what’s going on is that the prayers are weakening the influence that the demon has over the person. So the demon wants to stop that and he does it first by attacking the individual, by trying to get them to stop going to see the exorcist. Usually, that’s done through simple way by convincing the person that their problems are a mental illness or that they’re making up everything just to get attention. Many of the people I talked to who were victims, I was able to interview about seven of themâ€¦some of them were still according to the exorcist possessed. They were able to tell that they had often had these doubts during the exorcism, because it’s a process, of going to see the exorcist, of having doubts about the fact that I’m not possessed, I’m making this up, my problems are natural, I’m just trying to get attention. That’s usually the first way, and other ways that the person’s really suffering from mental illness. Another way then could be that the demon will try to stop the person directly and people always have these strange stories, their car mysteriously brand-new car mysteriously breaking down on the day that they have to go to see the exorcist.
I had another woman tell me that she received a mysterious phone call and a voice on the other end of the phone said that the priest that she was going to see is out of town, we’re going to reschedule the exorcism, you don’t need to come in, and she didn’t recognize this voice. She didn’t know who it was and she sort of was suspicious. She ended up calling the priest and he said, “No, I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m still here and I don’t know who that was that would have called you.” So these kind of things happen and of course, once the ritual begins, then the demon will try to do everything it can to throw the exorcist off his game so it will cause threats at the exorcist and if you think about this being as being an incorporeal spirit then it should know things about us that a normal person wouldn’t and that sometimes happens. The individual would be able to say things about the exorcist, about his life, about things that nobody would know because it’s giving you details about like you say, past transgressions or events that have happened even the night before in their house. I mean things that are very hard to explain. In fact, I had one psychiatrist that I had talked to from New York tell me that he had seen a woman who she knew what was going on in his house the night before, like and she was able to describe everything he was doing as she had been watching him through the window. And so these things are all those to sort of scare the exorcist and try to get him to stop praying which is the real goal of the demon. It isn’t just sort of to show how they have some sort of superior power or something like that which they don’t. It’s just to sort of throw the exorcist off his game.
Chris: Now what is it that people do to become possessed? Is that something that was covered in this?
Matt Baglio: Sure, I mean one of the ways of course a person probably the question that everybody has is “Okay, well how can I become possessed and what can I do to protect myself?”
Chris: Because you know, I want to allay people’s fears out there that if somebody’s like oh wait, maybe I’m possessed. What are the conditions under which demon possessions occur usually?
Matt Baglio: Well, I think the best way to say is that there’s nothing really usual about it and that’s really where the experience comes into it and the amount that the exorcist needs to have and the training. Every exorcism is different and of course, if we are as humans are trying to speak about things that are above us, angels and the will of God and these kinds of things, it’s very hard to get concrete answers. The best way to look at this whole subject is that nothing happens, no matter what it is unless God allows it to happen. That’s what the Church teaches. That’s what the exorcists say. So really, this all is up to the will of God. God allows this to happen and that there’s a big mystery. Why would God allow something like this to happen and there’s, if you go through the history of the Church, there’s all sorts of great minds, much better than me of course who try to explain this. If you look at St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, most of it comes down to this idea that we have free will, that the decision is ours and God leaves it up to us to make that choice. This is probably a subject that many of the listeners are very familiar with but for those that aren’t, essentially you have to open the doorway up to these individuals, evil spirits. It isn’t that you’re just going to be walking down the street and something’s going to jump inside you and attack you. So you have to open a doorway up and there are various ways that the Church you can do this. One is through the occult, practicing or using an Ouija board or magic or any of these kinds of things. Another one is through a life of hardened sin.
Another one is dedication is to a demon. These are like satanic rituals or those kinds of things and another one is through a curse. Now, really though, even though it gives these guidelines and I go into what each of those are in the book, it’s really about going back to the earlier idea of an individual choice and the idea that we are responsible for our decisions. So it isn’t that you’re going to play with an Ouija board and become instantly possessed. It’s much more of a process of you through your actions in life turning away from God. That’s really what it’s all about, being close to God and through practicing the sacraments, going to Mass, especially the sacrament of reconciliation which exorcists tell me is stronger than any exorcism, you’re going to have a strong relation with God. You’re going to close with God and so you’re going to have that strong bond. It’s those people who start to stray away from God and they lose that connection, that’s when they begin to open themselves up. So it could beâ€¦they begin by playing with the Ouija board once and then slowly over time they become playing with it more and more, they become addicted to it which opens themselves up to other sins which moves them further away from God which could then allow them to do something that opens up the doorway. So those areâ€¦it’s something that needs to kept in mind within the context of what the Church teaches, the will of God and free will.
Chris: And early on in the conversation, you mentioned something about when you started this process, you were nominally Catholic but not really practicing. Has this experience changed the status of your faith?
Matt Baglio: Very much so. I think it really helped me to reconnect with the Catholic Church in a lot of ways. I mean, I don’t think it was because all of a sudden I had this in mind, okay there’s demons watching us and angels and all these kinds of things. I think it was just more through the reading and studying I had to do. I mean, I really immersed myself in the subject. I wanted to really come at this with an open mind and for that reason, follow the research wherever it lead me and being very curious, I just kept digging and digging and digging and trying to read as much as I can and somebodyâ€¦I was reading books aboutâ€¦written by St. Augustine and Sir Thomas Aquinas, all these great minds in the Church and then of course, you’re talking to some amazing priests that I met and individuals who are suffering and looking for help and it was just a very spiritual process and in a lot of ways, it helped me reconnect to the Church and understand the value of faith. This isn’t something that is silly and prayer, it’s very important.
Chris: And one final thing, I see here in the notes that New Line Cinema has acquired the film rights to your book. Do you think that they’re actually going to turn this into some kind of a movie and if so, do you think that they’ll be faithful to it?
Matt Baglio: I hope that they will be faithful to it. I can’t say whether or not there is actually going to be a movie that’s going to come out. I mean, they’re interested in making one, whether or not that happens, remains to be seen. But I think the individuals that they’ve put in charge of making the movie are very competent. I’ve got a lot of faith in them, they’re all very professional and I’m hoping that they’ll be able to do a good job. I’ve sort of kept myself away from the process a little bit but I’m very optimistic that it’s going to be, if it comes out, it’s going to be a good film. One that hopefully shows exorcism in a new light and reminds people that this isn’t something that is so easily pushed aside.
Chris: Well, Matt, we’re out of time here. Was there anything else that you wanted to share with our listeners, a website or any final thoughts?
Matt Baglio: Well, I’d just like to say that even though this is sort of a dark subject for a lot of people, exorcism, demons, these kinds of things, the story itself is really a very uplifting one. It’s mostly about this American priest and about his journey and about him discovering the power of prayer and helping people. And that’s really what his mission in life has been all about. I do have a website, if your listeners would like to go there. It’s www.mattbaglio.com. One other point I’d like to add is that I do have extensive interviews in the book with skeptics and scientists and psychiatrists and anthropologists even, you know really trying to cover all the bases and I think some of your listeners will be surprised by what they have to say, not in the sense of debunking everything but in the notion that there are certain things that even they admit, that just can’t be explained through science.
Chris: And if you want to know more, you’re going to have to check out that book or the audio book version; either one and I hope that you will be as impressed as I have been with the book and with Matt himself. Matt, thank you so much for coming on the show. It has been a real pleasure.
Matt Baglio: Thank you for having me.
Transcript of Interview with Matt Baglio about The Rite. This interview and others like it can be found at http://www.catholicspotlight.com
Listen Now to the audio version of the show.
The Rite at The Catholic Company.