The Wall Street Journal tracked him down in Los Angeles for a brief interview.
The film is loosely based on the nonfiction book by journalist Matt Baglio, which details the experiences of Father Gary Thomas, an American priest from San Jose, Calif. who travels to Rome to become a Vatican-certified exorcist. “The Rite” opens nationwide on January 28.
The Wall Street Journal: Much of the film portrays a skeptical Colin O’Donoghue having a crisis of faith. Did you have a similar struggle with doubt?
That part is actually fictionalized. I would say this. The first few weeks in Rome, I was very skeptical about what I was seeing in terms of the manifestations. Were they really real or was it a placebo effect or what people thought they were supposed to do? Because they were so over the top compared to anything I’d ever experienced.
I hear a lot of priests don’t really believe in physical manifestations. Is that true?
Yes, I would say that’s accurate.
What sold you that it was real?
As time went on, it was clear that this was the intense suffering of people in terms of diabolical investment and infestation of a person’s physical life.
If you were skeptical, why did you pursue exorcism training in the first place?
The bishop appointed me, just before I went on my sabbatical to Rome. It was several months after receiving a letter from the holy father, just before he died, requesting that every bishop in the United States select and train an exorcist. So I naively said that I could do that. I took the course in Rome.
Was there any field training? Or was it mostly in-class theory? Slides?
There was no hands on. I found the course very good, but I knew I had to go and get an apprenticeship.
I was surprised to discover that the Vatican actually takes mental illness into account when diagnosing possession. How do you personally make that determination about, say, schizophrenia? Do you have any psych training?
I’m an entrepreneur in that respect. When you don’t know what you’re doing, go ask and go find people that have those strengths. When I got back from Rome, I built a team. I have a clinician, a physician and a psychiatrist. All practicing Catholics who believe in the possibility of satanic existence. And two priests. I also have other people I call on an ad hoc basis when I need advice.
Sounds like a Vatican A-team. What other specialists do you consult with?
When people think they’re seeing demons and other things, I had to find a toxicologist and ask what are the side effects of meth use that I should be aware of and how long do they last? The exorcist has to be the ultimate skeptic. That’s why I had no problem with Colin’s portrayal because he’s the icon of more people or not that don’t believe.