(UNDATED) Pity the poor exorcist, caught between evil spirits eager to invade human bodies and a society skeptical that demons exist outside of Hollywood horror movies.
Even some church leaders look askance at exorcists as peddlers of a practice best left in the Middle Ages. Most American exorcists, particularly the handful of priests appointed by the Roman Catholic Church, keep a low profile, hesitating to open themselves — or their church — to ridicule and quacks.
But exorcists may soon be moving out of the shadows.
U.S. Catholic bishops are sponsoring a conference this week (Nov. 12-13) in Baltimore on the "liturgical and pastoral practice of exorcism." Fifty-six bishops and 66 priests have registered to hear about the shortage of trained exorcists and the growing interest in the mysterious rite, according to Catholic News Service.
That's good news for the Rev. Gary Thomas, a loquacious, Silicon Valley priest eager to dish about exorcism and the art of spiritual warfare.
Thomas is pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, Calif., and the official exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose. According to Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who is helping organize the Baltimore conference, Thomas is one of only five or six active exorcists in the U.S.
Last year, Thomas wrote to 121 Catholic bishops and 41 seminary rectors, urging them to train more priests in demon de-possession. Included with the letters were copies of "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist," a book by journalist Matt Baglio that details Thomas' three-year journey from California clergyman to university-trained "spiritual detective."
"I hope that you will take the time to read this book and become better informed about a subject that many Catholics priests deem superstitious and medieval," Thomas wrote in the letter to the bishops. These are apocalyptic times, the priest says, and exorcists are needed now more than ever.
So, why haven't more bishops appointed exorcists? "Because they do not believe in them," Thomas answered. "In my opinion, then, they should not be bishops."
After all, salvation through Jesus is necessary because a certain someone — i.e. Satan — tempted Adam and Eve to eat a very unfortunate apple, Thomas said, thus bringing sin and evil into the world. Without Satan, the salvation story falls apart, the priest said.
The first Christian exorcisms were performed by Jesus himself, who freed a number of sufferers from "the domination of demons," in the words of the Catholic Catechism — and instructed his followers to do the same. "And these signs will accompany those who believe," Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, "by using my name they will cast out demons."