Probably no rite in the Catholic Church has been more subject to misunderstanding than that of exorcism. The reasons are legion: the rite seems ridiculous to many modern people to whom the existence of the devil is an absurd superstition; the rite lends itself to sensationalism, particularly in movies, where it is pretty much a guaranteed money-maker; and the rite seems to provide an irresistible attraction to suggestible people.

But no less a person than Pope Francis has “urged ever diocese to follow Catholic law and have at least one trained exorcist.” In An April of 2014, Pope Francis urged the faithful to “learn to fight the Devil … who exists even in the 21st century”.

The Holy Father’s approach to the rite of exorcism is of a piece with his often repeated vision of the Church as “a field hospital.” In a letter to the 2014 Conference of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome, Pope Francis said exorcists offered “the love and welcome of the Church for those possessed by evil”, and that “by treating people who were possessed, priests could demonstrate that ‘the Church welcomes those suffering from the Devil’s works.’”

But because of, on the one hand, the refusal to accept the existence of Satan, and on the other hand, the sensationalism the rite of exorcism is subject to, the rite badly needs to be both taken seriously and de-mystified.

On Sunday, January 31, at 7:00 PM, San Francisco’s Star of the Sea parish will host Father Gary Thomas, the exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, and author of the book The Rite (on which the 2011 film starring Anthony Hopkins is based). Father Thomas will speak on his healing ministry as an Exorcist.

In a 2011 interview with Father Dave Dwyer on Busted Halo, Father Thomas explained part of the difficulty people of our time have in coming to grips the reality of Satan and the imperative for the rite of exorcism: “We went through a phase, though, I think, in the post-Vatican II Church until somewhat recently, where I think a lot of biblical scholars saw exorcisms as really a metaphor for evil that really was unexplainable, and sometimes would think of possessions or the manifestations of possessions as being related to diseases that had yet to be discovered per se. But now, there’s a much sounder grounding that, no, Christ, in fact, was performing real-life exorcisms. And so, I encounter lots of Catholics who will say, ‘Oh, the Church is still doing those things?’ or, ‘We still believe in Satan?’ Satan hasn’t go away. He is relevant in and out of season.”

Like Pope Francis, Father Thomas is very clear both on the existence of the Satan and demons and on the rite of exorcism as a healing ministry. When Father Dwyer asked how the ministry of exorcism has affected Father Thomas’s faith, Father Thomas replied: “Well, I mean, before I took on this role I certainly believed in the reality of Satan. I think, now that I’ve been in this ministry, I’ve been — I’ve never had a doubt — but anybody who has a doubt can simply come and see what I’ve seen at times and then maybe they won’t have doubts either. But, I think one thing it has done — it is a profoundly healing type of ministry. The people who come to me, in one way or another they all have — whether it’s something diabolical or whether it’s psychological, these are mostly people who are enduring great suffering.”

Father Thomas will speak at Star of the Sea Parish on Sunday, January 31 at 7PM. The parish is located at 4420 Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. For more information visit www.starparish.com