The Rite by Matt Baglio


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.”

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3 thoughts on “The Rite by Matt Baglio

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  1. George, Thanks for your thoughtful review and critique of the book. It was very encouraging. Since the book is about a Catholic priest the theology and approach to exorcism is Catholic, but I definitely want to stress that in no way was I trying to say that only Catholics can perform exorcisms. As you know, many Christian deliverance ministers perform prayers of deliverance. The main distiction is not one of efficacy, but to say that for Catholics, the Ritual of exorcism is a sacramental and so there are rules that a Catholic exoricst must follow before he can perform the Ritual. He doesn’t need to follow these rules if he wants to say a blessing over someone. But the Ritual is a specific thing, though that’s not saying it is in some way superior to everyone else’s approach. I look at it like two different teams that are playing on the same side.

    The book is also clear that while Catholics being prayed over may say that certain saints are helping them, the power of the Ritual doesn’t come from the bishop, from a saint, or even the priest, but from Jesus.

    In the early Church, as you mention, all Christians were said to perform exorcisms, however, in antiquity the Church began to set up these guidelines to weed out those “exorcists” who thought themselves to be special individuals who often abused the rite of exorcism. Some performed it as a magic ceremony and even charged money. This doesn’t give bishops special powers, it’s more doctrinal than anything.

    The other points you make are good ones and I would respond by saying that there is still some mystery involved in exorcism and none of the Catholic exorcists I talked to claimed to have all the answers. They were simply trying the best they knew to help people and bring them back into communion with God.

    Thanks again for your review, it is definitely my hope that more Christians (and not just Catholics) read this book.

    Sincerely,
    Matt Baglio

  2. Matt:

    Thanks for your response! And thank you for writing such an interesting, well-researched, and well-written book! I had many “Aha!” moments as I read your book, and though I am a Pentecostal, I learned much by reflecting on Catholic theology and practice.

    Please understand that I was not being critical in any way of your book. I was raising issues that, as a Pentecostal, I find to be in tension with Catholic teaching and practice. These are areas for further dialogue, as far as I am concerned. Indeed, as a result of reading your book, I developed a greater appreciatin for Christian tradition and experience in the formation of our theology and practice. The Bible provides a skeleton outline of demonology and exorcism; it is from tradition and hard-won experience that we flesh out the particulars.

    By the way, I posted this review at Amazon.com, Facebook, and my other blog: AGThinkTank.com.

    God bless!

    George

  3. Hey, George–

    M. Scott Peck has a fascinating section on exorcism in his book ”People of the Lie.”

    Susan Raedeke (nee Brewer)

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