Friday, January 28, 2011

The Rite

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (2 ½ stars)

IMDB listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -
Interview with Matt Baglio author of “The Rite” -

A couple of weeks ago, I pretty much knew that I’m going to have to go see The Rite when it came out in the theaters. I probably would have seen it anyway, since it does deal with the Catholic Church and one would have to be a far stronger man than I to resist a movie dealing with a subject like Exorcism. However, I was out with the youth group on a Sunday, said couple of weeks ago, and talk of the upcoming movie was all the rage.

I set myself up for that I suppose because over the years I’ve talked quite freely that I’ve had my own experience with exorcism while I was in the seminary in Italy. And there’s no more interested a group to talk to about such subjects than to a bunch of teenagers. They have tons of questions and when I was a teenager I ate this stuff up as well.

On my own brush with Darkness (our “old friend”) ...

Anyway, my brush with exorcism wasn’t particularly formal though _certainly memorable_ . NO it wasn’t “part of the curriculum” or anything like that. Instead, it happened during the summer after my first year in the seminary in Italy, when like most of my classmates I was encouraged to travel about Italy and visit various parishes and communities of my religious (Servite) Order in that country. At one of the places that I visited along with another seminarian from my Order, we were told fairly early during our stay that “By the way, one of the priests in our community here is designated by the local bishop to be the Exorcist for the area.” We both responded, “va bene,” taking it with some bemusement. The subject came up again the first evening of our stay when after dinner we visited our Order’s sisters living in the Convent across the street and the subject came up again. At this point, I felt obligated to ask “Is this really necessary in this town?” To which a couple of the sisters piously shaking their heads up and down responded with great sincerity “Si.”

Nothing of note happened for the next several days until one afternoon near the end of "siesta time," I went down to the rectory’s kitchen to pick-up a bottle of mineral water. The priest who was the one designated by the local bishop to perform exorcisms saw me and asked me if I could fetch the other seminarian so that we could help him move some furniture. Great, I got the other seminarian and together at the priest’s behest we lifted up and carried into his office a “lazy boy chair.” As we opened the door and brought chair into the room at the far wall stood a somewhat short and rather thin man in his 40s or 50s, dressed in an average man’s clothes (nothing fancy), who’s hands, feet and head/neck seemed very contorted and, yes, he was foaming a little at the mouth. Looking at him and thinking epilepsy, it nonetheless immediately struck me, “Oh my, a 100-150 years ago, there would have been no one on the planet who would not think that this man was possessed.”

We set the chair down near the rather contorted man and led him toward the chair. I remember that he was too stiff to sit down in the chair, so I and the other seminarian just gently knocked him over into it. In the room were, I, the other seminarian, our order’s priest who was the designated exorcist for the diocese, the man who was tormented/possessed and the man’s sobbing wife holding the two’s wedding picture. The priest asked that the other seminarian and I just hold the man by the shoulders so that he wouldn’t leave or fall out of the chair. We began to pray the Rosary.

What I most remember here, and why I continue to repeat the story 15 years after it happened, was that during the Rosary, whenever we got to the point in the Hail Mary when we’d say of Mary “blessed are you among women...,” the man would start flailing about with great force in the chair (that’s when we most needed to hold him down then) screaming “No cursed are you among women!” and then continue screaming for the rest of that Hail Mary about what kind of a _slut_ Mary was. until we got to the end of the Hail Mary and the whole cycle would repeat itself. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women...” “NO CURSED ARE YOU AMONG WOMEN ...” And this continued for the duration of the Rosary (about 10-15 minutes). Then at the end of the Rosary, the priest pulled out his crucifix and the holy water. He also held in his hand with the crucifix the nice wedding picture that the man’s wife had brought with her. The priest then started to reproach the tormented man. “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this to your wife? Can’t you see that she’s crying?” He shot holy water on the man a few times. Each time he did that, the man again flailed in his chair. Again, we had to hold him down. Then suddenly there was a clear break. Suddenly the stiffness the man’s body melted completely away and the man crumpled back into the chair and he began to speak meekly saying that he was aware of everything that was around him before but that he could not do anything about it.

So there it was. Did I experience basically an epileptic seizure, something like it or something more? Again, 100-150 years ago there would be no doubt. Today there would be. In my week remaining at that community, I asked a whole lot of questions, took down lots of notes and (as a “good seminarian”) journaled away about all of this to try to make sense of it. One of the strangest, most memorable phone calls that I ever made was to my dad later that afternoon. “Guess what I was part of today dad ...?” To this day, I smile thinking about what it must have been for my dad to receive such a phone call that day from his son staying a continent away...

The priest who was designated as the exorcist did not work alone. He had an assistant, a young lay woman who was getting an advanced degree in psychology. He also told me that he took absolutely _no one_ who was not referred to him by the local psychiatric authorities. The man in question, had apparently been tormented in this way for about 10 years. He had episodes like this only a few times a year and otherwise was happy and active parishioner at the parish where we were. Again, did I see an attack of epilepsy or something similar? I don’t know though I suspect that to be at least partially the case. What I _do_ know is that everything in the praying over this man that I saw was designed to gradually calm the person down. (This was very different from the movies I’ve seen on the subject). The man’s wife was there with their wedding picture. The Priest was there symboling to an Italian mind “Order in the midst of apparent Chaos” seeking to assure the man that no matter how it may seem at the time “the world had not gone to Hell.” We prayed the Rosary, which the man would have known from childhood. Yes, the priest did admonish him at the end, and did cast holy water on him. But the words he used were far less dramatic than seen in either The Exorist or in this new movie The Rite. (Though the Rite did, for instance, note that exorcism is _not_ a one time thing, that the person tormented apparently has repeated episodes over a period of time extending into years. This was just like in the case of the man who I saw in Italy on that day).

So why all this about my own experience here? Because I want to make it clear that I do take the subject seriously. A very good interview with Matt Baglio, who wrote the book The Rite on which the movie is based can be found online on Catholic Spotlight. Whatever else one may say about the subject, I find that interview credible. I would encourage people to check during the coming weeks for articles written on the subject and on the movie in Catholic press: National Catholic Reporter, Our Sunday Visitor, EWTN.

Back to the Movie ...

As a movie, The Rite is “Hollywoodized,” though perhaps less so (or in a different way) than in the case of The Exorcist. Another movie that various critics have recommended (which I have not seen) that is considered “more true to life” than either is The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

I think that the performances in The Rite are excellent, certainly by Anthony Hopkins (playing Fr. Lucas Travent a Welsh exorcist living in Italy) as well as the lead by Colin O’Donoghue (playing a sceptical seminarian by the name of Michael Kovak sent to Rome by his rector after Michael reveals that he's thinking of leaving the seminary just before his ordination), as is that of Alice Barga (playing a journalist in the movie named Angeline who's seeking to write a story about the subject).

The movie is rated PG-13 ostensibly to allow teenagers to go see it. Again, teens tend to be fascinated about subjects such as this. I do think that the PG-13 designation is appropriate in that I WOULD NOT see much value in young kids seeing this movie as it may needlessly terrify them. I would also discourage anyone, young or old, from going to see this movie, who is squeamish about this kind of subject.

I say this because I do believe that the most important lesson to learn from a story such as this is simply one of humility. It’s a reminder that, yes, we don’t know everything, and that a having healthy respect for that which we do not know is not a bad thing. But if one already lives with such humility and respect for what one does not know, then there wouldn’t be a screaming need to see this movie.

For I do believe that it’s when we start to pretend that we know everything, that we’re “little gods” that we tend to get ourselves into trouble, whether the matter is a “big thing” or a bunch of “little ones.”

On the other hand, if you like this sort of stuff, go see the movie. It’s a great ride. And again, it is based on truth. Read Matt Baglio’s interview.

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