Sunday, January 16, 2011

Matt Baglio: The Rite

I read this book without knowing precisely what to expect.  I was interested in learning about spiritual warfare, especially from a Catholic perspective.  I knew that Father Thomas Euteneur (currently of the diocese of Palm Beach, formerly of Human Life International) had written a well-received book on the subject, Exorcism and the Church Militant. That book was unfortunately out of print, but Euteneur did recommend another work as a resource: The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by Matt Baglio.

Among the Catholic rites and practices, exorcism is decidedly the black sheep -- ignored whenever it's possible, and marginalized whenever it can't. Due to an explosion of reported possessions and instances of demonic warfare in Europe, specifically in Italy, the Vatican had decided to debut a course in exorcism for interested priests.  This naturally attracted a good deal of attention from local and international media, including by American journalist Matt Baglio.  Shortly after the course began, Baglio met Father Gary Thomas, a priest from San Jose, California, who had been sent by his bishop to Rome for training. Father Thomas had never witnessed an exorcism and knew virtually nothing about the subject, but was eager to learn and was soon apprenticed to a practicing exorcist, Father Carmine.

Baglio wrote The Rite as the story of Father Thomas' training. The narrative conceit is stunningly effective. Both Baglio and Father Thomas begin as a skeptic, but the book conveys their gradual exposure to the Rite and acceptance of the reality of spiritual warfare.  Baglio packs the book chock-full of anecdotes, not only from Father Thomas' experience, but from other exorcists around Italy, and various sufferers.  He also covers the theology of spiritual warfare, a historical survey of Catholic and Christian demonology, and (most intriguingly) modern medical and psychological views on demonic possession.

In an article published in The American, Baglio stated that he "wanted to take an unbiased, non-macabre, almost scientific approach to determine just what the Church actually taught about exorcism." The Rite was quite successful in this regard.  There are occasional sensational details, but on the whole Baglio conveys the surprising banality of the rite, and dispels many misconceptions that accompany the subject.  The Rite may have been too successful, in fact. It attracted the attention of Hollywood (the source of many of those misconceptions), and is the basis for the upcoming film "The Rite" (starring Anthony Hopkins as Father Carmine). Based on the trailer, I have little doubt that this film will be a typical Hollywood bastardization of the source material, but that hardly disqualifies the book as a splendid and invaluable resource for those who seek real theological and scientific content on this much-disputed area of Christian doctrine.

This was cross-posted at my theology blog, Orthodox Reflections.

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