Meet Gary Thomas, the Priest in the Movie

Father Gary Thomas, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, speaks openly about the ritual of exorcism and his 'fight against the evil.'

You might or might not believe in exorcisms, but you've probably seen them on the big screen. What they do is a subject of much controversy, but exorcists do exist beyond Hollywood.

In the 1973 thriller The Exorcist, a desperate mother finds two Roman Catholic priests to help her daughter Regan, who is said to be possessed by the "devil." One of the two is Father Damien Karras, a psychiatrist who is struggling with his belief in spirituality.

Similarly, in The Rite, an Anthony Hopkins-starrer about exorcism, the character of Father Gary Thomas is depicted as someone struggling with his faith.

"That's Hollywood," noted the real-life Father Thomas, 57, the pastor at the Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga.

The priest's story was chronicled in the book “The Rite: The Making of A Modern Exorcist,” by journalist Matt Baglio— which then became a Hollywood movie. Father Thomas was a consultant on the project, which he said took liberties with the story.

"In real life, you would never have a seminarian who basically gave up his faith being sent to Rome to see if he can get his faith back. You just wouldn't do that," said the priest during a recent interview in his office at the parish, where he performs the controversial rite of evicting so-called "demons" or spiritual entities from persons or places. The Sacred Heard Parish is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose, which includes Campbell, Cupertino, Gilroy, Los Gatos and Los Altos and many other municipalities in Santa Clara County.

Becoming an 'Exorcist'

Before Hollywood came in, an exorcist was a title and a role in certain religious institutions. In 2005, after spending 15 years at Saint Nicholas Catholic Church in Los Altos, Father Thomas took a sabbatical to train to become an exorcist. He went to Father Carmine DeFilippis, the provincial of the Capuchin Order in Rome. He worked with the master Italian exorcist during three-hour sessions, three days a week, for three and a half months.

He is now teaching others what he has practiced for he last seven years. He's mentoring three priests in the Diocese. "The best way to learn is by observation and participation," he said. "All the theological training in the world won't do you any good if you've never sat and discerned with an exorcist on how to do it."

Father Thomas officially became an exorcist at Bishop Patrick J. McGrath's request in 2005. In the Roman Catholic Church, only a bishop, by right of his ordination, can perform an exorcism, or he can ask a priest to fulfill the role. However, a priest, by right of his ordination, does not have the power to perform the ritual, Father Thomas explained.

Today, Father Thomas is among about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States.

Exorcism Training

The course he took, which is shown in the movie, was practical and academic, he said. Several speakers came in to talk to the students about the ritual. In 10 sessions, they addressed issues such as the relationship between electronics and the computer age and "the culture of isolation, which is an invitation to the occult."

"The occult is all about power and the technological world, in which we live, makes it very easy for us to be dependent on nobody," Father Thomas said.

How Many Exorcisms?

The Diocese doesn't keep track of the exorcisms performed. But Father Thomas said he's performed about 40 exorcisms on seven people in the last five years.  

The number of exorcisms in the United States is dramatically lower than in Italy, Father Thomas noted. Half a million exorcisms are performed yearly in the European country.  

Most of the work performed by Father Thomas is discernment, he said, such as figuring out if someone who says they're possessed by an evil spirit is in actual need of an exorcism.

What people may perceive as being outside the realm of this world often times is a mental-health issue, he said, adding that he works with a team that includes a medical doctor and clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.

"The first thing an exorcist does is not an exorcism," he said. "The first thing an exorcist does is encourage people to get back into a life of prayer and the sacraments for Catholics, but I see other people besides Catholics who come to me."

Father Thomas' Faith

Father Thomas was born and raised Catholic. He grew up in South San Francisco, but has lived in Santa Clara County since he was 21 years old. He attended the University of San Francisco and earned a management degree, then attended the College of Mortuary Science, also in San Francisco. He began working in the funeral business at the age of 14 until he was ordained a deacon at 28. He embalmed corpses at in Los Gatos for about six years, he said.

He considered becoming a priest when he was in the eighth grade, but never pursued it until he entered St. Patricks Seminary in Menlo Park at the age of 25. He was ordained a priest on Dec. 3, 1983 in the Saint Patrick Proto Cathedral Parish in San Jose.

"Faith is a gift, but you have to work at it. Faith is like a plant that you have to water," said Father Thomas. "If you don't nurture it through prayer and the sacraments, it will die because we're creatures of habit and we run best by rhythms and we live in a culture today where there's no center of gravity for most people."


MichaelJ October 25, 2011 at 07:23 PM
I like Father Thomas' comments on faith. I believe your faith gives you strength to do things that may otherwise not seem possible.
Mckenna Smith October 25, 2011 at 07:37 PM
Cool! Our very own Ghostbuster!
AR October 25, 2011 at 09:23 PM
its sad that grown adults believe in this gibberish in 2011. even for catholicism, this is reaching very far into the gutter of hokum.
AR October 25, 2011 at 09:34 PM
....like provide wildly inappropriate "solutions" to mental illness, which is almost certainly the situation with individuals who are brought to him with "possession". i'm frankly surprised that this isn't criminalized, this nonsense should have been left in the fourteenth century.
Sheila Sanchez (Editor) October 25, 2011 at 09:42 PM
AR, did you see the movie?
Steve October 25, 2011 at 09:49 PM
i like when regan spits a big green lugie on his glasses.
Sheila Sanchez (Editor) October 25, 2011 at 09:57 PM
I've seen both movies and, by far, The Exorcist, is the most disturbing. How about the part when Regan's head spins and not to mention what she does with the crucifix ...
AR October 25, 2011 at 11:12 PM
is there some movie i am supposed to see that somehow papers-over centuries of psychological abuse and murder by the church? the historical antecedent for this practice resulted in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands humans tortured and murdered. what next? witch hunts? at what point does it just become gibberish? this is well beyond that. its sad that people who are probably dealing with legitimate psychological trauma are exposed to charlatans like this.
Sheila Sanchez (Editor) October 25, 2011 at 11:24 PM
AR, I'm just wondering what you thought of the movies, if you saw them? I understand your point of view and I'm sure it's shared by many.
Brad Hayden October 26, 2011 at 03:25 AM
Wow. I'm torn between my faith and my sense of reality. On the one hand, I know that Satan exists and If you pay attention, you can see his influence every day. On the other, I'm looking at the article where it states the this priest has performed 40 exorcisms on seven people. Either these seven people have really bad luck, are really receptive to demonic possession, or this guy just doesn't do them very well. His track record seems spotty at best. But demonic possession isn't about the Devil but his servants possessing people. As for the Exorcist, okay movie. Unfortunately for Hollywood, I was blessed with the weird ability to see where a plot is going. I stopped reading for pleasure because of it. I think I was the only one in the theater who actually laughed at some of the scenes, like the candle scene in the attic.
Bob Johnson October 26, 2011 at 04:24 PM
It doesn't seem possible that there is a Devil and demons. It seems more probable that they're made up by the clergy for job security. Fear based superstition is important to all of the different "revealed" religions. Regarding faith, I like what the Deist Voltaire wrote: "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason." The American founder and Deist Thomas Paine wrote an important and thought provoking book, The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition. This book makes clear the difference between religion and God. It boils down to reason v. faith. As Paine points out, God gave us reason and ancient men wrote the various "holy" books. It's better to stick to what God gave you. Progress! Bob Johnson www.deism.com
Brad Hayden October 26, 2011 at 05:25 PM
Bob, I think your confused. First you say that it doesn't seem likely that Satan or demons exist but in the very next paragraph you state that its perfectly obvious that there is a God. If you accept the concept of God, then you must also accept that Satan also exists. There can be no good without evil. And if you accept the concept of God, than you must accept the existance of angels and again if angels exist, then so must demons. As for invoking Thomas Paine, He is a man who wrote a book, much like those ancient men he mentions. That's all. He's not the end all be all of spiritual knowledge. To give this man credit over those who walked with Christ is short sighted to say the least. And if its point is to direct people away from the gospel, then it should be looked at with caution, as that's exactly what Satan wants. His whole purpose is to mislead and corrupt the human mind and soul. And lastly, while I am extremely faithful and attend services every week, I didn't join the LDS church out of fear. I wasn't threatened or coerced in any way. I have no fear of God. I've got a really healthy respect for Him and I do the things I'm supposed to do, not out of fear but out of a desire to be more like His Son, our Savior. I consider God a close personal friend who is always there for me. I can't count the number of times He's pulled my butt out of the fire, which I appreciate greatly.
Ed Buckner October 27, 2011 at 02:41 AM
This is really much hullabaloo about nothing. Exorcisms, like other rituals based on "faith" in supernatural beings are at best a waste of time. At worst, which they certainly can be, they encourage fear and misplaced trust from the gullible. Everyone--from the priest or anyone else involved--needs to be more responsible, more skeptical, and more reasonable. We human beings must respect and rely on each other--there are no gods to appeal to, nor are any needed. Regards to all, Ed Buckner, Former President, American Atheists
Curious December 11, 2012 at 04:43 PM
I find it really amusing that so many people consider themselves to be experts on a subject that none of them really understand. I have had several experiences of having premonitions that have proved accurate time and time and time again. I have had precognitive dreams that have proved to be true dozens of times and secular science cannot even begin to explain this phenomenon. If you have no spiritual gifts, what makes you the expert? Who gives you the right to look down your nose at people who are different to you and sneer at their beliefs? Does it really hurt that much to have respect for diversity? I believe in the existence of the supernatural. I believe that some people have mental illnesses but that others could be suffering possession. I do not sneer at the beliefs of secular people so I do not see why they think they have the right to sneer at mine. Three of the world's great religions- ( Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believe that spiritual possession can occur and I happen to agree. If I respect the rights of secular people to believe as they choose ( live and let live), it would be nice to think that they would have the courtesy to do the same for me.
Yaya January 30, 2013 at 07:56 PM
"Curious" well put!!! I'm catholic and I agree with you!!


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