Interview with an exorcist

Through Christ’s salvific life and death on the cross, Satan  lost the battle between good and evil.

Yet sin still exists and Satan hasn’t stopped seeking the ruin of souls.

Father Gary Thomas is keenly aware of this.

For six years he’s served as the Diocese of San Jose’s official exorcist.

The Vatican-certified exorcist’s experiences during his training in Rome were the subject of the 2009 book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” by Matt Baglio. The 2011 film “The Rite,” starring actor Anthony Hopkins, was based on this book.

“My priesthood has changed because of it,” Father Thomas said about becoming an exorcist. “I see everything I do now through the optic in which there is a cosmic battle going on.”

The Sacred Heart Parish pastor from Saratoga, Calif., will visit the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley Nov. 27 to make a presentation about the reality of evil and his work as an exorcist.

The following is the Denver Catholic Register’s Nov. 2 interview with Father Thomas.

Register: There are many skeptics who don’t believe in demonic possessions, much less that there’s a evil who seeks people’s souls. What would you say to them and what is the Church’s teaching on this?

Father Thomas: I would say to skeptics, ‘Come and see (my presentation).’ The Church’s teaching is found scripturally when Jesus cast out demons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear. The Church has had an authoritative rite since the year 1614. Satan is alive, in and out of season.

Register: You’ve said you believe there’s been a rise in demonic possession in the modern day. Why do you believe this?

Father Thomas: I think one of the reasons is because paganism is a lot more rampant and a part of our American culture than it was 30 to 40 years ago. What I mean by paganism is practices of the new age, practices of the occult—those are all against the first commandment.

Like when someone goes to a medium to get answers, a palm reader or séance, or uses a Ouija board or practices Wicca. Those are all idolatry.

Register: In your work, you’ve dealt with various kinds of possessions. Sometimes it’s diabolical and sometimes it’s psychological. Can you talk about these differences?

Father Thomas: Possession is a very narrow definition in this milieu. It means when a demon has taken full control over the body of a human being. Those are rare. The technical words are ‘oppression’ and ‘obsession.’ That’s what most exorcists use. I like to use ‘demonic attachment.’ There is a demon attached but it doesn’t prevent the person from functioning.

When I was in Rome and taking this course and observing an exorcism with a priest who was my mentor, there were many people who came and looked completely normal until holy water was poured on them. They would start yelling, they would start feeling a sense of being burned, they would start rolling their eyes, they would maybe flop on the floor and curl up like a snake.

Register: How do you determine if someone is actually possessed?

Father Thomas: I don’t make these decisions in a vacuum. I have a medical doctor, a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist whom I consult with. They are at my disposal. You have to rule out the natural before you assume the preternatural. This refers to the angelic realm or spirit world. The last thing an exorcist does is a formal exorcism. You can pray with people, which I do often, and those are minor exorcisms. But the solemn rite is only used when all other means of deliverance have failed. It’s very complicated and you don’t make these judgments rashly. The discernment can take six months to a year.

Register: How many exorcisms have you performed?

Father Thomas: I’ve performed about 60 on 10 people in six years. That’s an approximate.

Register: What’s involved in an exorcism?

Father Thomas: There’s a litany of saints, a Scripture reading, prayers directed at Satan and the demons, and the demons are directly addressed. Then you can intersperse those prayers with Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Holy water and a crucifix are used. I never do these alone. I’ve always got a team with me. I usually have at least one or several priests with me.

Register: Tell me about one person you performed an exorcism on.

Father Thomas: A man who came to me had been exposed in utero to witchcraft through both of his parents. When this man was 2, he was sexually abused by a half-brother and a neighbor. That’s when the demon entered. He didn’t begin manifestation (showing signs of demonic attachment) until he was 35. In his case, he started manifesting on the Easter Vigil in his diocese a year ago. They brought him to me because they went to three priests in the healing ministry and they couldn’t help. The demons attached to him are incredibly violent. I have five men that restrain him when we do these exorcisms because otherwise there would be harm done to people. We have him lie flat on the floor in the church. We always have the Blessed Sacrament exposed and we have relics, which are very powerful. We just continue praying those prayers until the demon has been delivered. This man is a lot better than he was.

Register: Is there a danger to yourself and others when performing exorcisms?

Father Thomas: There can be. I’ve had demons attack me physically. They tend to attack me more emotionally. I’ve never experienced any physical injuries but (the demons) try. What has become much more heightened in my life is a sense of loneliness since I’ve been involved in this.

Register: Have exorcisms changed your understanding of evil?

Father Thomas: Absolutely. My priesthood has changed because of it. Every time I celebrate a sacrament it’s an invitation for the people gathered to celebrate the presence of Christ, knowing … that until his second and final return we will continue to weather the effects and influences of sin, and to a deeper degree, at times, personified and un-personified evil. Not all evil is personified. What I deal with is personified evil.

Register: What else would you add about exorcisms?

Father Thomas: Exorcisms are a healing ministry. It’s not meant to be a ministry of drama or a ministry of magic. In Jesus’ public life, he has two primary jobs: he taught and he healed. One of the exercises of his healing ministry was the expulsion of demons. That’s really clear in the Gospels, especially Matthew and Mark. It’s a healing ministry and it’s not meant to enthrall or tantalize, entertain or scare. I always say to people at the end of my talks not to be afraid, but to be vigilant and be aware.

 

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”