Father Gary Thomas arrives at the premiere of 'The Rite' in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, 2011. Thomas' life is the basis for the film (image credit Matt Sayles/AP)
Fort Thomas, KY (written by Karen Vance/Cincinnati Enquirer) -- Exorcism is the stuff of movies, but for the Rev. Gary Thomas, it is a Catholic rite. He is an exorcist, trained in the Vatican and Rome, and his story inspired a book and a 2011 film.
Thomas describes his ministry as one of healing. "I don't do exorcisms on demand," he said. "It's dangerous, and it's not always what people need.
"I have to get to the root cause of what they're suffering from â€" it is preternatural or psychological," he said.
"In every instance I am called into, there is deep suffering," Thomas said. "In most instances, it is not demonic, it's a mental health issue. But either way, our church has a responsibility to help these people."
In the seven years he's been an exorcist, Thomas has worked with a dozen cases of possession among about 125 inquiries.
He counts three of the individuals as "delivered." He is still working with another three. The others started the process but did not finish.
"My message to people is that Satan is real, demonic possession is real -- it's not superstition, not myth, not medieval," he said. "But the church has remedies."
Thomas had been a priest for 22 years when his bishop of the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., asked if he would learn about exorcism. Not every diocese is required to have a priest trained in exorcism.
Thomas went to Rome on a sabbatical to study spirituality and took a class on the topic. He went deeper, studying with an Italian exorcist. A classmate from his class asked if he would be willing to share his experiences for a book.
The story of his internship inspired the book "The Rite" (2009), which was made into a movie released in 2011 starring Anthony Hopkins, who played the veteran priest. One marked difference in the film is that Thomas' character is shown as a seminarian rather than an established priest.
"I couldn't have told you seven years ago that I was called to do this," Thomas said. "But I do believe in the personification of evil. I'm not afraid, and I believe that is a grace.
"I don't find the work appealing, but in the same breath, I find it meaningful."
Thomas used the $25,000 consulting fee from the film to start a fund to help those he sees when they need a referral for mental health or medical services and don't have insurance.
In addition to his duties as an exorcist, Thomas, 58, is a full-time parish priest for Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saratoga, Calif. He has a team that assists him as an exorcist, including therapists and a lay person who helps him discern when a demonic presence is involved in a case. He notes that the casting out of evil is scripture-based and the rite for exorcism is as old as the church.
"Christ was the first exorcist," Thomas said. "I know there are skeptics out there, including some priests and bishops who don't believe."