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Return of the Devil: Exorcism's Comeback in the Catholic Church 

Wednesday, Mar 9 2016
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Church doctrine teaches that the devil is a creation of God, who put Satan on earth to tempt mankind — not to torture us, but to show us the difference between good and evil. Whatever his reason for being in someone's life, driving the devil out could take a few minutes of prayer, or it could take decades. But it requires a priest, who reminds the devil, a being with "preternatural" power limited by God's rules, of his his lesser status in an attempt to weaken him long enough to release his hold on the mortal soul.

For centuries, the devil held fast to the hearts and minds of European Christians. But for some reason, he seemed to reach new levels of power as Europe exited the Dark Ages and stepped towards the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment.

"During the 16th and 17th centuries," writes historian Brian P. Levack in The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the European West, "the reading public in Europe was treated to a steady diet of stories describing the extraordinary behaviour of people who were said to have been possessed by demons." Demons caused people to speak fluently in languages they'd never heard before, to shriek and hiss and spit and blaspheme, to recoil at the sight of a priest. There were reports of possessions that engulfed entire families, entire convents, sometimes entire towns — a "phenomenon [which] approached... epidemic proportions," Levack writes.

(Even before the Protestant Reformation and the new brand of fervent, Satan-fearing Puritanism current movie-goers may see in The Witch, the Satanic script also followed gender roles: Most possessed people, and all witches, were women. And all priests — the only people with the ability to remedy a witch — were men.)

But while the 17th century could be called the "golden age of the demoniac," Levack argues that there are two periods of time that are in competition for that title: the early Christians and today.

As many as 15 percent of the people on earth have had at least one exorcism in their lives. There are over 1.2 billion Catholics. Every Catholic is baptized, and the rite of baptism — in which Catholics witnessing the ceremony must swear to "reject Satan and all of his works" — is a miniature exorcism, according to church doctrine.

And the United States is as Catholic as ever: According to Gallup, while the number of Americans who say they are atheists has increased from 1 percent in the 1950s to 17 percent today, the percentage of Americans who say they are Catholic has remained relatively stable (23 percent today, 23 percent in 1961).

This is partially thanks to the influx of immigrants from heavily Catholic Latin America. "[A]ll Latin Americans have this sensibility," said Father Cesare Truqui, a Mexican priest who is trained as an exorcist, in an interview with Catholic Online. "For them, the existence of the Devil is part of their faith." (Pope Francis is from Argentina, the first Latin American pontiff.)

But for the church, the spiritual home for exorcism is closer to home: It's in Italy, where as many as 500,000 people a year seek healing via an exorcism for afflictions ranging from anxiety and depression to uncontrollable urges.

Church leaders see this as no accident, as Europe is also the modern home of the occult. Research published in 2012 by Sabine Doering-Manteuffel, an ethnologist at the University of Augsburg in Germany, suggests adherence to New Age philosophies — including transcendental meditation, astral traveling, and Wicca — are indeed on the rise in Europe, and have created "strong counter-movements" to Enlightenment philosophies.

Hard data is scant, but church leaders have embraced tidbits of information like this as new cause for purpose. Priest assembled for the International Association of Exorcists' annual meeting in 2014 stated that occult activity is on the rise, according to the Catholic News Agency. (Italy is also the home of the church's most-famous exorcist, 90-year old Father Gabriele Amorth, who in an interview with a Catholic news agency last year called both yoga and Harry Potter "satanic.") Ouija boards, tarot decks, the belief that crystals hold power, or going to the oak grove that serves as the Druidic circle in Golden Gate Park — the Church regards all of these as possible entry points for demonic activity.

Despite never having encountered a demon face-to-face for the first 22 years of his time as a priest, Father Gary Thomas believes all this. Thomas, a soft-spoken and kind-eyed man in his early 60s, is America's most famous exorcist. He plies his trade about a half an hour south of Sand Hill Road, the famous avenue of venture capitalists, in the heart of Silicon Valley, at Sacred Heart parish in Saratoga, where his parishioners have included founders of Adobe and executives at Apple.

On a recent warm Wednesday afternoon in February, Thomas greets a visitor from San Francisco at the door of his residence, a spacious two-story building he shares with one other priest. In a dining room right off of the house's garden patio, Thomas discusses over sandwiches — turkey for his guest, tuna for him — about how he first encountered Satan and, in 2005, when his bishop asked him to become the local exorcist in order to fulfill the Vatican's directive, how he became Silicon Valley's go-to guy for casting out evil.

Prior to heading to Rome for his formal training for the church's official course for exorcists, Thomas had never seen a person he believed to be possessed — and had mentioned Satan from the pulpit no more than a couple times (He recalls two instances in the span of two years: once after the Columbine High School massacre, and another after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, two events he now says "were absolutely diabolical.")


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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