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.
"That's Hollywood," said the real-life Father Thomas, 57, the pastor at the Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga and one of about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States.
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 Heart 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. Father Thomas officially became an exorcist at Bishop Patrick J. McGrath's request 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 the 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."
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.
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, (and how it) 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."