Matt Baglio talks ‘The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist’

Anthony Hopkins stars as a senior Vatican exorcist in The Rite, charged with overseeing the education of a young American seminarian chosen to study the ancient rite of casting out devils.  Hopkins’s character teaches him by example allowing the young man to watch and share the truths and realities of the mysterious practice. 

The seminarian is doubtful of the veracity of what he’s seeing and becomes increasingly alarmed when it appears his teacher is losing his grip on reality, even as he loses his own faith. The film is based in part on American journalist Matt Baglio’s book ‘The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist’. 

Monsters and Critics spoke to Baglio from his home in Rome, Italy.

M&C: What is demonic possession?

Baglio: That goes to the heart of my book and the film.  According to the church it’s when an evil spirit takes possession of a person or an object or place.  Houses can be possessed.  People are said to have cursed objects and will have manifestations in the house with windows and doors opening and closing.  It’s thought that an evil spirit possesses a person but it doesn’t. 

Technically because it’s a pure spirit it doesn’t live inside the person.  One exorcist told me to imagine a spirit attached so someone by a metaphorical pipe that influences him.  For me, it’s more interesting. 

It’s not like a puppet, with the devil inside. There is a different exorcism for a place but priests normally just perform a blessing .Most exorcists will tell you if a house is having phenomenon it’s associated with a person in it.

M&C: Have you personally witnessed exorcisms?

Baglio: Yes, I’ve seen about thirty and for the most part they are quiet. They tended to be of the milder type. I was given permission to see them and stronger cases I document in the book those were experience d by Gary Thomas, the Catholic priest in my book and in the film. 

He saw some very strong cases.  None I saw were out of control although I did see some fantastic things, like personalities changing, violence, shouting and pushing, and a woman speaking in a guttural voice like a dog, but those are rare.

Most are part crouching shouting and struggling with something.

M&C: Can science explain exorcism?

Baglio: Science can’t explain it.  But what I found in my research was that there is no consensus.  Even within the church some people don’t believe in possession. Science can explain most of the cases when people go to an exorcist; they aren’t possessed, they have natural problems or they’re suggestible and need to be comforted and calmed down. 

There are a few cases I’ve spoken to psychiatrists and doctors who believe in demonic possession 100%. Many think they’ve encountered the paranormal in their work.  There’s a psychiatrist in New York who thinks he’s seen 200 cases.

M&C: Why did the Vatican open a school for exorcists and three days later deny its existence?

Baglio: The school is to educate priests. But when people talk about the Vatican, they must be careful because there are many different people within, from the secretary of state to the Pope, so it’s very hard to say the Vatican did this or that. The school was set up by exorcists who saw there wasn’t any training for priests.

A central aspect to the film is how the exorcist was trained.   On the DVD, the real school is featured; this is an aspect of what exorcists today would like to see.  But they’re cagey about it – the hierarchical reason is that it’s because it’s not something they want to emphasize, it’s a minor focus, and it’s about the bad stuff not the good stuff. 

They kind of want to keep it hidden away. But there is a need for the ritual or they wouldn’t have created the school.  Also they are cautious about it; there could be grandstanding and there are those who might use it as a platform for themselves. 

M&C: Was there ever an exorcist who became possessed as Anthony Hopkins’ did in the movie?

Baglio: The movie was adapted from the book and fictionalized; I tried to be as accurate as I could because it’s non-fiction. It’s not the same structure and one of the aspects was the idea of Anthony Hopkins character having to go through this confrontation. Nothing is theoretically impossible.  There was one exorcist who was possessed, in history so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. 

It is  accurate to the theology behind exorcism and it is pleasantly surprising to me and to priests who have seen it, how impressed by the logic behind the journey – the lack of faith and then the challenge presented to an exorcism through this ministry , the constant struggle. There is a line of thinking that the closer you are to God, the more targeted you are. 

Saints have allegedly been attacked by the devil.  And you also have to be cautious about people who took on that mantle just to prove their worthiness as a Christian or a believer when it’s not necessary, people who like to think of themselves as participants. Jesus was tempted by the devil so if Jesus and a priest, why not everyone? 

They are very clear that it would be a mistake to overemphasize the power of these spirits, but we have the power, more power the demon has.  Priests are attacked; every exorcist says they’ve seen it happen.

M&C: Are there sanctioned exorcists in most cities?

Baglio: Most dioceses are supposed to have exorcists but they don’t. There are some in Canada.  There are more in Italy than anywhere, about 350.  In Sicily there are 60.  In America, there aren’t as many as bishops should have so they may appoint them or don’t need them.

But I should address the fact that Italy is superstitious and they may simply need priests not exorcists, someone to talk to in a unique situation.   I would say not every city has one Catholic exorcist and secular people do it if they believe they have the gift of casting out demons.

M&C: There has been great interest in exorcisms in pop culture lately; lots of possession films.  How would you account for this?

Baglio: Interest in exorcism ebbs and flows.   In the 70’s the first Exorcist movie spiked interest and after that in America people were going through satanic panic.  Books written in that period screamed on the cover to run for your lives!  I really wanted to stay away from it. That’s one reason I wanted to make it modern, in the 2000’s. 

People have always been fascinated by the unknown. We can’t say for sure if angels and demons exist.  Physicists tell us new things every day about alternative worlds.

I have read enough and talked to enough people to get sense that some people have had experiences in their own lives that make them feel they were in touch with something beyond the natural world, a visit from a dead relative or a chill, those things go across every culture and religion and the idea that an evil spirit watches us terrifies us.

M&C: You’ve take on dangerous subjects – Vatican politics, anti-mafia police, satanic cults and now exorcisms!

Baglio: I have to say that the subject of exorcism was not one I was dying to write about.  It just sort of happened, I heard about a course on it. I love looking at topics that people claim to know everything about but they don’t.  I like to go in and entertain and educate people about the reality about their own lives.  I wasn’t satisfied with the books I’d read or the movies I’d seen on the subject of the reality of exorcisms today.

My wife wasn’t happy about (my researching exorcism) in a kind of funny way.  Most people’s reaction is if “I am I going to be a target?” Priests are like that too and many people had this reaction of “Gee, I don’t want to talk about it or read about and the devil will leave me alone”. 

It’s a silly approach and I debunk it in my book, when I began the research I was much more worried and the more I got into it, the more I calmed down.  They realize these things do exist. It’s about us, our choices and responsibilities and limits on the spirits, it’s less of a horror movie. 

M&C:  So you came out of it unscathed?

Baglio: Yes, I did.  I tried to be as practical as possible and I looked into many things and I didn’t have a bad experience. In fact, it was a positive experience writing the book. It really helped me calm down and get connected to something larger than myself and that’s the same reaction people have for the film and the book.  It’s a dark topic but it’s not a dark message that people take away.

M&C: What’s next as a journalist?

Baglio: Next I’m out of the church and into more politics and that espionage thing!

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