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St. Michael, Pray for Us Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 31 January 2011

I was visiting a seminary just after Christmas in 1973 and, with time on my hands, one afternoon decided to head to a nearby multiplex to see the just-released movie version of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel, The Exorcist.

Whatever else you may say about William Friedkin’s film version, it was effective – and not just the film itself but also its pre-release marketing, so much so that when showtime came and the lights went down, people in the crowded theater screamed with fright. Blatty’s novel was based upon an actual exorcism conducted by Father William S. Bowdern, S.J. in Missouri in 1949.

The Rite, the new movie starring Sir Anthony Hopkins, takes its title from Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book of the same name. The film claims to be “inspired by true events;” in fact it’s pure fiction, start to finish, and owes more to Mr. Blatty than to Mr. Baglio. (In the opening credits of director Mikael Håfström’s film we read: “Suggested by the book by Matt Baglio;” not “based upon,” which is the usual locution, merely suggested by.)

Mr. Baglio befriended Fr. Gary Thomas, a Californian who, before exorcism education in Rome, knew next to nothing about demons or the rite to cast them out. Baglio shadowed Thomas, attending training sessions and actual exorcisms, and together they both experienced a deepening of faith and an appreciation of the differences between common psychological disorders and the rare cases of actual demonic possession.

In the book, Fr. Thomas’ Italian mentor, Fr. Giancarlo Gramolazzo, explains that an exorcist is more spiritual director than angelic warrior, and Fr. Thomas recently told the Guardian newspaper that he has performed about forty exorcisms on just five people in the last five years and emphasized that “the victories are small in number, and it takes a lot of time. It’s very arduous work.”

 
Anthony Hopkins as an exorcist in The Rite

The movie, of course, wants nothing of such hard-nosed, balanced appraisals of exorcism. Fr. Thomas is replaced in the movie by a character called Fr. Michael Kovak, played by hunky Irish newcomer Colin O’Donoghue, and Matt Baglio is transformed into the lovely journalist Angeline Santos (Alice Braga), who mostly provides exposition, and Fr. Gramolazzo becomes Fr. Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), who, Angeline tells Fr. Kovak, has performed a thousand exorcisms and to whom the younger priest is sent for practicum.

The first exorcism shown in the movie is actually gripping and reasonably credible, until the young possessed woman begins spitting up railroad spikes. Early reviews of the movie, which opened on Friday, have accused Anthony Hopkins of scenery chewing, but that’s unfair. Yes, there are echoes towards film’s end of his Oscar™-winning performance as serial flesh-eater Hannibal Lecter, but most of what puts the performance over the top are the hammy special effects – the facial changes and bodily contortions, added in after filming – that have nothing to do with Hopkins’ acting.

Now in his early seventies, Anthony Hopkins still commands the screen with a physical presence that’s equal parts spiritual stillness, nervous energy, and menacing muscularity. They say screen acting is all about the eyes, and Hopkins’ pale blues can radiate malice in one moment and compassion in another but always show intelligence, even genius, which makes him worth watching even if he’s reciting gibberish.

Indeed, The Rite isn’t nearly as bad as you may have read. Then again, it’s not nearly as good as it should have been.

At the start of The Rite, there seem to be two dangerous and other-worldly forces in play: demonic evil . . . and Catholicism. The Church has become one of Hollywood’s enduring villains, and, thanks to intimations of anti-Catholicism, after about fifteen minutes I was half-tempted to walk out of the movie. And when young Fr. Kovak finally finds his faith – at the climax, by rule near the end – it’s mostly because he has sure as hell come to believe in Satan.

When he calls out a well-known demon in the name of Jesus Christ, it’s as though a vacuum at the heart of modern movie making has been unsealed. At the same time, you couldn’t call The Rite a Catholic or even a religious film in any proper sense. The movie fails to make the rite of exorcism anything more than a plot device, no different than the Ghostbusters’ Neutrino Wand that zaps out demons and stores them in a Proton Pack.

That’s sad, because as Fr. Lucas tells Fr. Kovak: “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.” 

Just last year, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, 85-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth, declared that the Anti-Christ is waging war within the Holy See: “The Devil resides in the Vatican,” he told the Repubblica newspaper, “and you can see the consequences.” He should know: he claims to have performed seventy-thousand exorcisms. That may seem, well, extravagant, but recall too John Paul II’s warning (which appears on screen at the start of “The Rite”): “The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world,”

 
Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing.
 
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Comments (15)Add Comment
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written by Bill, January 31, 2011
Thank you for a great film review, Mr. Miner.
"The Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration.....amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent......" Fatima in Lucia's own Words.
This book was published in 1976 and contains an imprimatur from the bishop of Leiria, Portugal.

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written by Bill, January 31, 2011
Postscript. When you see my entry above, you will understand why generations of Catholics from the 1920s to the 1960s lived such pious lives. They did not contracept (most of them), divorce was shunned and abortion was unthinkable. They went to confession frequently and over 70% attended Mass each Sunday. Jesuits gave retreats on the Four Last Things (Death, Judgement, Heaven or Hell). Now you understand why. They believed in the Apparitions which were deemd worthy of credence by the Church itself. Our Lady gave Lucia the Third Secret which was to be released no later than 1960. Fifty years later, it has still not been released in its entirety. Be alert and prayerful!
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written by Yezhov, January 31, 2011
Decades ago, I was making visit to the exorcist of the San Francisco Archdiocese (for an entirely different reason), a Jesuit named Fr. Patzelt (who had been a German seminarian drafted into the Werhmacht as a medic, fought on the Eastern Front and survived mainly because upon capture, the Russians instead of shooting him, put him back to work as a medic -- he thus survived the war, and became a Russian rite Jesuit.) While I was there, he received a phone call from San Jose,the subject of which was klatch of devils which he was having difficulty exorcizing. "I'm getting tired of driving down there. I'm coming down there one more time to rid of these devils once and for all!" I mean the guy was having a routine conversation like he was discussing the stock market, but in this case the business was Legion. All part of normal work day for Father Patzelt.
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written by Grump, January 31, 2011
I thought only Jesus could drive out demons although maybe he gave this power to his immediate disciples. The Exorcist was a good film, but poor theology and, as one who would like to be a Catholic Christian, I fear that watching The Rite would only keep the demons within me from taking flight. :)
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written by Brads Miner, January 31, 2011
Grump: The Lord did give the power to his disciples (see Mt. 10:1). I think it's safe to say, however, that watching "The Rite" will have no effect one way or another on the demons inside anybody. -Brad
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written by Austin Ruse, January 31, 2011
Great column, Brad.

I remember vividly seeing the Exorcist when it came out and being scared out of my wits even before it started. Amazing marketing. It remains an iconic movie. It should be noted that Blatty has really embraced his faith in recent years. I have seen him around Washington DC at various religious dinners.

I also have read and highly recommend Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin. I read it years ago and remember being so scared, I put a chair under the front door of my apartment...to keep the devil out. Go figure that.
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written by Achilles, January 31, 2011
The very air we breath is toxic with the fumes of the 7 deadly sins rising off the rotting corpse of decency, whom we murdered out of envy. We have spent so many generations building our self esteem on sand that we have lost sight of our fallen nature. The resultant discontent is cognitive dissonance as the chasm between the truth and the propiganda shoveled on us widens. I heard Peter Kreeft say something like "Freud said that he noticed that in our society where we spend so much energy to become content, the more things we get for contentment, the more disontented we bocome." (My butcher job, sorry Dr. Kreeft) Kreeft goes on to say "But Freud was only one step away from St. Augustine's answer 'our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee'."
Read again THe Screwtape Letters, The Snakebite Letters
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written by Lee Gilbert, January 31, 2011
A number of years ago some Vietnamese told us that when they first came to the USA, one day they looked at one another in astonishment and said, "There are no demons here!" Apparently it was not uncommon to see obvious cases of demonic possession in Viet Nam, but here no. Of course when we heard this, our prayer group just laughed. They are here alright.

Secondly, when you consider how large a proportion of Jesus' ministry was taken up with exorcism, something is obviously the matter now in terms of the place that exorcism occupies in the life of the ordinary priest. Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that for a person to get a priestly exorcism now he would first be put through the mill by being sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation, etc., etc. filling out forms etc., etc. getting the bishop's permission etc. etc.. Psychiatrists are such spiritual experts, you see. We know that from the recent scandal.

If I wanted an exorcism now, I would go to the Pentecostals, or to a priest from Africa. They strike me as spiritual men, who are as experienced in dealing with spiritual things. It seems unlikely the devils in Africa have been westernized yet and that African priests would know what to do. Maybe I'm wrong, but one thing, I certainly would not go to a psychiatrist.

And so it is that many of our people here and in South America wind up as Pentecostals. Our clergy and intellectuals write this off as surrendering to emotionalism, but no, a person will go where he can find help. There are lots of people here in the USA who are in the throes of sexual addictions, extreme depression, various other addictions, that is to say in the grip of the devil.

For them, there is very little help within the Catholic Church. The are legion, but if they go to the rectory, they will come out with the phone number of a psychiatrist.
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written by Louise, January 31, 2011
Mr. Grump,
I am so glad you are still with us. On my way to Mass yesterday, this poem )that I loved so much that I memorized it) came into my mind and I thought that it summed up the discussions that resulted from your previous posts. This is my gift to you. (The author, according to my book, is that famous "Anonymous", but in other translations I have seen it attributed to a 15th c. Spanish monk. [Dear Mr. Miner, please forgive the detour--it's for a good cause.] The poem is called

Sonnet to Our Lord on the Cross

I am not moved to love thee, O my God,
That I might hope in promised heaven to dwell;
Nor am I moved by fear of pain in hell
To turn from sin and follow where you trod.
You move me, Lord, broken beneath the rod
Or stretched out on the cross, as nails compel
Your hand to twitch. It moves me that we sell,
To mockery and death, your precious blood.
It is, O Christ, your love that moves me so,
That my love rests not on a promised prize,
Nor holy fear on threat of endless woe;
It is not milk and honey but the flow
Of blood from blessed wounds before my eyes,
That waters my buried soul and makes it grow.
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written by Brad Miner, January 31, 2011
Lee: I suspect it's a mistake to assume that demons are acculturated, and - in any case - it seems illogical to suggest that a "priest from Africa" would do better in an American exorcism. But the main thing: the Church teaches that only approved proclamations by one ordained to make them - and only in the name of our Savior - will banish demons.
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written by Lee Gilbert, January 31, 2011
Brad, Thanks for your response. The mention of the westernized demons was tongue in cheek, but it does seem that possession here is less dramatic than in Third World countries, perhaps because it fits in more with the demonic strategy here that "God is dead." In other words, that there are no spiritual realities whatever.

My assumption re "African priests" is that it seems far more likely that they have had actual experience with exorcisms than American priests have. It would probably be true of a priest from Haiti or Vietnam, for that matter. Evil spirits figure prominently in those cultures, or such is my understanding.

I'd be very interested to know your source for this comment: "But the main thing: the Church teaches that only approved proclamations by one ordained to make them - and only in the name of our Savior - will banish demons."

It does say at CCC 1673 "The solemn exorcism, called a 'major exorcism,' can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of a bishop." That of course leaves open the possibility of minor exorcisms being performed by other persons, and does not touch the question of effectiveness.

The Decree on Ecumenism does say, does it not, "Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can contribute to our own edification" (Section 4). From what I have seen, which is plenty, there are Pentecostals who know very well how to cast out Satan in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name and in the blood of Jesus Christ. This is a resource that we ignore to our own great loss.
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written by Grump, January 31, 2011
Dear Louise:

Thank you, my dear, for your kind thoughts. As a betting man (though always a loser), I may take up Pascal on his wager yet. After all, what do I have to lose, but eternal life? And the alternative is kind of scary, although somehow I feel I would be welcomed with open arms.

Consider it progress if I make it to being "A Laodecian," which God still would spew from His Mouth. But lukewarm would represent an advancement, if that's the right word, toward salvation.
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written by Achilles, January 31, 2011
I echo Louise Grump, I was very glad to see you this morning! I wish I could sit down with you and hear your story, your earnestness is very telling. Pray for me, Achilles
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written by Louise, February 01, 2011
Thank you for your response, Mr. Grump. I found that poem shortly after "my buried soul" was watered by the Blood of Christ and we had returned to the Church That return was not exactly for the second time. Our first conversion (1971) lasted about 11 years, when we left our Father's House (1982) to wander around in no-man's land. It was an arid, desiccating experience. If I shocked my husband (2002), I shocked myself even more when I said to him, "I want to go to Christmas Eve Mass." And that was the beginning of our journey home. It was a moment of pure grace poured out on my dried-up soul for which I was unprepared. When I say, "waters my buried soul and makes it grow", I really, really mean it. God be with you.
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written by Thomas G., February 02, 2011
Mr. Miner - I'm surprised at no mention of (what I believe) is the most naked canard laid against the Church in "The Rite", namely, that the Church would compel a seminarian to pay back the cost of his seminary education if at the end he decided that Holy Orders was not for him. Such a practice amounts to coercing a man into the priesthood, and that surely cannot be good for the priesthood. In fact, I think the Church requires that seminarians pay for their education as they go - either through loans or personal funds - so that this coercion cannot occur.

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