A highly-publicized exorcism in Gary, Indiana last month made headlines across the country. Medical staff at a hospital reported seeing a 9-year-old boy walk backwards up a wall and ceiling.
The boy’s mom said both of her children levitated inside her home. A Catholic priest performed exorcisms and declared the family healed.
But while the report brought its fair share of skeptics, representatives of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston say the event should not be readily dismissed and that the sacred rite of exorcism is still an active practice in the modern Catholic Church.
"Possession can happen with a person. It can happen with a place,” said Sister Madeleine Grace a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas.
"Possession would assume very strange conduct -lifting objects that would be far beyond their strength, knowing information which they would have no way of having, speaking a language which they could not speak,” said Grace. “We have testimony all over the place that it occurs, yes."
The exorcism ritual, practiced by Catholic priests who have been appointed by their local bishops, was revised by the Vatican as recently as 1999.
"All of us exorcists we all have a confidential list. And on that list at the present time there are like 85 guys,” said Father Gary Thomas a parish priest in Saratoga, California whose role as an exorcist was publicized in the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” and the movie that followed in 2011 starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.
"I've performed about 50 or 60 exorcisms and we've had some very complicated situations,” said Fr. Thomas in a recent interview with KHOU 11 News.
In those situations Father Thomas says he never works alone.
His team includes a medical doctor, a clinical psychologist, and a psychiatrist all of whom are practicing Catholics. They try to rule out mental illness first then proceed with the Vatican-approved sacred rite if they feel the person is indeed possessed.
"Most of the time people have issues of mental health not exorcism demonic issues,” said Fr. Thomas. "You only use the formal rite when all other means of casting the demon have failed. And that's assuming there's a demon."
"If there is a demonic issue you don't know what that demon may do. I mean a demon can kill a person,” said Fr. Thomas. “So you have to be ultra careful and that's why we take this very seriously.”
"So whenever the presence of the holy is there immediately the devil moves away from that,” said Sister Grace. “The devil cannot stand the presence of the holy. If it is effective the person is aware that the demon has left them and then there is a prayer of thanksgiving at the end."
Grace says despite the publicized event in Indiana that exorcisms are usually a private issue between a priest and his congregant. Exorcisms take place across the country, including in the Houston-Galveston archdiocese, but their frequency is not necessarily a known number.
“If a person comes to a priest and says that I think I'm possessed the priest has to keep that confidential,” said Grace. "If the person says ‘yes you can tell the world’ that's a different story. But it is meant to be a very confidential undertaking.”
As for outspoken priests like Father Gary Thomas, he says he does worry about public perception of exorcism especially when there are people, charlatans he calls them, claiming they can exorcise demons over the internet.
"Honestly what (that) does is it dis-educates people because it leads people to think it's all hocus pocus. And it isn't!"
Thomas says he is currently involved in two exorcisms. The rituals are often repeated numerous times with the same individuals before they are declared healed.