Matt Baglio, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist (New York: Doubleday, 2009). $24.95, 288 pages.
What should a modern Christian make of exorcism?
New Testament scholars agree that exorcism was a crucial component of Jesus’ ministry. Mark 1:39 summarizes his ministry this way: “So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.” Those same scholars disagree as to the nature of exorcism. Conservatives understand it literally, as the casting out of a demonic spirit. Liberals interpret it metaphorically, as the healing of a mentally ill person.
Modern Christians must choose between these two options.
Matt Baglio’s The Rite is the fascinating story of how one Roman Catholic priest made his choice. Father Gary Thomas was a parish priest in northern California until his bishop appointed him diocesan exorcist. Like many American and European priests, he sided with a more liberal interpretation of Gospel texts, but he was open-minded. So he traveled to Rome for instruction in the theology and practice of exorcism. Part of his instruction was an apprenticeship to a veteran Italian exorcist named Father Carmine de Fillipis. The instruction opened his eyes and changed his life.
As a Pentecostal pastor, I was interested in reading this book for a number of reasons: learning more about possession and exorcism, seeing how modern Christians deal with the supernatural (and, frankly, weird) aspects of their faith, learning what the Catholic church teaches on the subject. The Rite ably satisfied my thirst for information. It also provoked the following thoughts:
Father Gary’s instructors taught him to use exorcism as a last resort and only with the permission of the bishop. They encouraged him to provide ordinary pastoral support—counseling, prayer, and confession—to those seeking exorcism before performing the rite of exorcism over them. This support could also include referral to psychologists and doctors, who would be able to confirm that the person’s behavior was not psychological or physical in nature. Additionally, the bishop had to grant permission for the exorcism to occur, adding a layer of accountability to the whole procedure. All of this seems reasonable to me. If modern Christians believe in exorcism because we are Christians, we also believe in biochemical and psychological causes of strange and deviant behavior because we are modern. It seems that the only responsible thing to do is to determine whether the cause of “demonic activity” is actually demonic—as opposed to manic-depressive—before an exorcism takes place. The Catholic rite is a model of the integration of faith and reason in this regard.
And yet, I was troubled by specifically Catholic understandings of exorcism. Performance of the rite is limited to priests who are obedient to their bishops. While this provides a layer of accountability to the process, it also reflects the post-biblical concentration of believers’ spiritual gifts into the hands of the clergy.
Second, while the rite of exorcism itself is Christ-centered, the experience of exorcism involves an undue emphasis on the saints. Baglio interviewed many of the exorcized after the fact. They reported seeing visions of Mary, John Paul II, and various other saints, and these visions provided comfort to the exorcizee. No one seemed to have had a vision of Jesus.
Third, the exorcisms were not one-time affairs but could stretch out over lengthy periods of times and many visits to the exorcists. In the Gospels and Acts, Jesus and the Apostles exorcize demons “at once,” not over the course of months and even years.
Fourth, all of the exorcizees were baptized and confirmed Catholics. In Catholic theology, a Christian believer can be possessed. As a Pentecostal, I have a hard time swallowing that belief. How can a person filled with the Holy Spirit be filled with a demonic spirit as well?
Now, I fully understand that many people reading this review—especially my atheist and agnostic friends—are sure I’ve gone off my rocker at this point. The mere fact that I believe in supernatural beings has them laughing, let alone that I go on to pick fights with Catholics over the finer points of exorcism. To them, I say, “Read this book!” It may change your mind. Reporting on De Fillipis and Thomas up close awoke Baglio from “cultural Catholicism” to a more authentic practice of the faith. And as Hamlet told Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth / than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”