Baglio writes the book as a non-fiction documentary, reporting the exploits of Fr. Thomas as he comes to Rome and has his eyes opened to a whole new world he never imagined existed. Fr. Thomas is a seasoned priest with strong faith, but is a bit skeptical about the whole exorcist enterprise. He attends classes and seminars led by experienced exorcists, but it is only when he hooks up with Fr. Carmine, an experienced exorcist living in Rome, that he comes to believe in the reality of demonic possession and the need for exorcists. Fr. Carmine does several exorcisms daily and Fr. Thomas is there to witness them (Baglio was invited to witness a few himself). At first, he remains skeptical, as people are brought in and Fr. Carmine prays The Rite, but not much seems to happen. He also wonders why the same people come in weekly and don't appear to experience any change in their condition. It's almost like going to therapy on a weekly basis. But, eventually, he witnesses things that he cannot explain and comes to believe that demonic possession is a very real thing.
Besides reporting on the adventures of Fr. Thomas, Baglio includes a lot of information based on the research he did into this whole subject. Part of that research included interviewing many seasoned exorcists, many psychologists (both those who believe in demonic possession and those who don't), and many bishops and priests (and other church leaders). I found his reporting in these sections, which are spattered throughout his book, to be some of the most interesting reading. Is demonic possession real? When do you know it is occurring? How do you differentiate between possession and psychosis? And so forth. As you might imagine, there are answers all over the board on all these questions, and the many other questions that arise when exploring this topic. It really does make for fascinating reading, especially for a Lutheran pastor like myself, who doesn't encounter the need to ever put too much thought into this subject.
One of the things I found most interesting about the book was the fact that seasoned exorcists report that liberation from demonic possession is a lengthy process, often taking months or years, not hours or weeks. In the movies, someone is possessed, the exorcist comes in and the demon is thrown out. Not so in reality, according to these exorcists. They may pray The Rite over the possessed a hundred or more times before the demon(s) is/are cast out. Interesting . . . and theologically problematic for this Lutheran (more on that below).
Another interesting tidbit is the fact that seasoned exorcists treat each case with initial skepticism. Just because someone comes in and claims to be possessed doesn't mean that an exorcism is performed. In fact, that is quite rare. Almost always, there is a period of investigation done before going ahead with an exorcism, which also can only happen when permission from the bishop is granted. That period of investigation includes some initial testing by the exorcist himself, trying to find some signs that can ensure him that possession is happening (Baglio reveals some tricks of the trade used by exorcists to this end - e.g. splashing unblessed water on the person to see if there is a reaction, etc.). After these initial tests by the exorcists, they still do not usually proceed with The Rite, but send the person to be examined by a psychologist and/or psychiatrist to get his/her/their take on the matter. One of the things emphasized throughout the book is the need for exorcists to find psychologists and psychiatrists they can trust and with whom they can work (those who believe that demonic possession is real, of course). Often, the psychologist and/or psychiatrist will try to treat the person with counseling, hypnosis, and medication first. Only after none of this works and the psychologist/psychiatrist is convinced that it is possible that possession is the source of the person's woes will that person be referred back to the exorcist, who will then commence with The Rite, if granted permission by his bishop. In other words, what we see in the movies, and even in this movie, which is loosely based on Baglio's book, is not what happens in reality.
As I said above, the fact that exorcisms almost always take months and often years before liberation occurs is theologically problematic. This is especially due to the reason given for why liberation takes so long, namely that it depends not only upon the strength of the demon(s) and the reason/source of the possession, but also upon the cooperation of the one possessed. This certainly lines up well with Roman Catholic theology, which puts much of the onus of salvation upon individuals (faith+works=salvation), but not so much with Lutheran theology, which confesses that all of the work for our salvation is completed by Christ, and that we play absolutely no role in our salvation (faith in Christ alone=salvation - and even that faith is not our doing, but a gift from above). Thus, it is hard for me to accept the notion that liberation from demon possession involves the cooperation (work) of the one possessed. Liberation from demonic possession very much becomes an intra nos (within us) affair, and as a Lutheran, I'm all about the extra nos (outside us) work of our Savior through His Holy Word and Sacraments to create and sustain us in the faith. So, as I said, theologically problematic for this Lutheran. And, what does this say of our Savior, that it takes months/years to be liberated? Do we have a weak Savior, who is unable to liberate those possessed until/unless they do their part? Perhaps the reason liberation often takes so long is because the exorcist is filling the possessed with the idea that they have to do their part (fulfill the obligation of attending Mass regularly, receiving the Sacraments, praying daily, doing good works, etc.) and it is not until the possessed come to understand that they can't do it and end up throwing themselves upon the mercy of our Lord that they experience liberation. Just a theory. ;)
I also found many of the causes of demonic possession cited in the book to be troubling and theologically problematic. I certainly do not deny the danger in which people place themselves when they engage in things related to the occult, but exorcists in the book claim that people can become possessed due to a curse pronounced upon them by others, or by innocently coming into contact with some cursed object, and other ways like this that are a bit too superstitious and fantastic for me to take all that seriously. And I especially struggle with the idea that a baptized child of God can be affected by such things.
This is related to what made the movie a bit far-fetched for me. The main character in the movie is a seminarian named Michael Kovac, who enters the seminary not because he believes he is called to the priesthood, but to get away from the family business (morticians). This is a far cry from the main character in the book, Fr. Gary Thomas, who is a seasoned and faithful priest (although Fr. Thomas did have experience working in a funeral home before entering seminary). Seminarian Michael writes a letter of resignation just before graduating from seminary. He lacks faith. He doubts. He doesn't believe he can serve as a priest. But, he is talked into taking a trip to Rome for exorcism training by his superior before throwing in the towel. He reluctantly agrees and he remains a skeptic and doubter until the very end of the movie when he is called upon to exorcise a demon from the priest, Fr. Lucas (played by Anthony Hopkins), who he has been shadowing throughout the movie (much like Fr. Thomas shadowing Fr. Carmine). But, unlike the book, where Fr. Thomas is honestly seeking to learn from Fr. Carmine and has his skepticism quickly quenched, Seminarian Kovac not only remains skeptical until the very end, but looks upon Fr. Lucas, who is supposed to be his teacher and mentor, as nothing but an eccentric quack and trickster. The point of the movie is not so much about the reality of demon possession and exorcism, but about a doubting, would-be priest coming to faith. And the way he is brought to faith is what makes the movie far-fetched, for it takes the priest he's supposed to be learning from becoming possessed to get him there. Just a bit much, I thought. Although, as I said above, Anthony Hopkins is brilliant and carries the movie.
Interestingly, in interviews, Fr. Gary Thomas praises the movie "for its positive portrayal of the Church and for its witness to the power of faith." Author Matt Baglio applauds the movie as well. Both state that there are obvious differences and concede that the movie involves a lot of over-dramatization and follows a different plot than the book, but they believe it captures the essence. I guess they know better than me, but I thought the movie was too much of a departure from the book and a little too over-the-top. Oh well.
In the end, I really don't know what to make of the book (and movie). On the one hand, it covers a topic that fascinates me and gives me much to ponder. On the other hand, the theological issues create larger hurdles than I can jump. Do the devil and his minions exist? Absolutely, they do. I believe that wholeheartedly. Is demonic possession a possibility? Absolutely; otherwise, the biblical account is a fraud. Did Fr. Gary Thomas and journalist Matt Baglio witness things during exorcisms that are unexplainable? I'm sure they did; I have no reason to doubt them. But, what those things were, and whether or not they were caused by actual demon possessions, I can't know. But, what I struggle with the most, as mentioned above, is the whole theology involved here. The exorcist, when praying The Rite, talks about the power of Christ compelling the demon(s) to leave the possessed, but what they really mean, seems to me, is that the power of Christ is only tapped into and effective based on the power/faithfulness of the exorcist himself, and on the power/faithfulness of the possessed being exorcised. That's problematic for this Lutheran. At the same time, I readily admit my ignorance on this topic and would love to walk a mile in Baglio's shoes, going to Rome and witnessing the training involved for potential exorcists and to sit in as actual exorcisms are conducted. I think that would be fascinating.