Many of us have been very surprised that in the preaching of Pope Francis, one subject returns so frequently: the devil. For Francis, the devil is not a myth, but a real person. In one of his morning homilies in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, he said that not only is there a hatred of the world for Jesus and the Church, but that behind this spirit of the world is “the prince of this world”:
Public opinion, both Catholic and secular, has met the Pope’s insistence on the devil with a dismissive, cultural affectation, indifference, or at the most indulgent curiosity.
Yet Francis refers to the devil continually. He does not believe him to be a myth, but a real person, the most insidious enemy of the Church. We may be tempted to ask, why in the devil is Pope Francis so involved with the prince of demons?
In the book "On Heaven and Earth," originally published in Spanish in 2010, the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, said, "I believe that the devil exists" and "his greatest achievement in these times has been to make us believe he doesn't exist."
In the first months of his Pontificate in 2013, the evil one appeared frequently in the Pope’s teachings.
At a meeting with cardinals March 15, the pope spoke about how the Holy Spirit unifies and harmonizes the church. "Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day," the pope said. Rather, be certain that the Spirit gives the church "the courage to persevere."
At his weekly general audience April 17, Pope Francis spoke about Jesus being always near, ready to defend and forgive. "He defends us from the insidiousness of the devil, he defends us from ourselves, from our sins," the pope said. "He always forgives us, he is our advocate. ... We must never forget this."
In his homily on Palm Sunday, Pope Francis said: "A Christian can never be sad. Never give way to discouragement." Christian joy comes from knowing Jesus is near, even in times of trial when problems seem insurmountable. "In this moment, the enemy -- the devil -- comes, often disguised as an angel and slyly speaks his word to us."
The life of every Christian is a constant battle against evil just as Jesus during his life had to struggle against the devil and his many temptations. Since the beginning of his Petrine Ministry, the Bishop of Rome has been warning that whoever wants to follow Jesus must be aware of this reality.
Listen to the pope’s own words about the devil:
“We too are tempted, we too are the target of attacks by the devil because the spirit of Evil does not want our holiness, he does not want our Christian witness, he does not want us to be disciples of Christ. And what does the Spirit of Evil do, through his temptations, to distance us from the path of Jesus? The temptation of the devil has three characteristics and we need to learn about them in order not to fall into the trap.”
“What does Satan do to distance us from the path of Jesus? Firstly, his temptation begins gradually but grows and is always growing. Secondly, it grows and infects another person, it spreads to another and seeks to be part of the community. And in the end, in order to calm the soul, it justifies itself. It grows, it spreads and it justifies itself.”
Turning to the bible, the Pope recalled how Jesus’s first temptation by Satan was almost ‘like a seduction.’ Satan told Jesus to throw himself down from the Temple so that all the people will see that he is the Messiah! And when the devil is rejected, he grows and comes back stronger than before. Jesus himself noted this in the gospel when the devil went around looking for companions and with them returned to Jesus. Satan got involved with Jesus’ enemies and what seemed at first like a calm trickle of water turned into a flood of water. In this way, the temptation grows, infects others and justifies itself.
Pope Francis illustrates his point with very concrete, everyday examples of diabolical activity. For example, let’s look at gossip: I’m a bit envious of this or that person and at first I’m just envious inside and I need to share it and go to another person and say: “But have you seen that person?’.. and this gossip tries to grow and infects another and another… This is the way gossip works and all of us have been tempted to gossip! …It’s a daily temptation. And it begins in this way, discreetly, like a trickle of water. It grows by infecting others and in the end it justifies itself.”
Each time he speaks about the devil, Pope Francis urges us to be vigilant and not to give in to that initial temptation and thus allow it to spread to others and justify itself.
In speaking of the devil, Francis demonstrates that he clearly has in mind solid biblical and theological foundations. In the New Testament there are frequent references to that serpent. Jesus refers to him declaring that the devil is “a murderer from the beginning”; in him "there is no truth”; “when he speaks falsehood, he speaks from what is his own, because he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). And again Jesus calls him “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11).
The evil one throws everything into confusion, and at the same time is hostile to men and women, whom he intends to seduce and induce to rebel against the divine plan. The devil cannot tolerate Jesus Christ and seeks in every way to disrupt the divine plan conceived concerning him.
But Jesus proclaims himself victor over this prince: “The prince of this world is coming,” he says, “against me he can do nothing" (John 14:30); specifically, it is at the arrival of the hour of Jesus, that of his being lifted up on the cross and at the right hand of the Father, that that prince is struck down: “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world will be cast down." With the pouring out of the Spirit by the glorified Lord, that prince meets his condemnation (John 16:11). Paul in particular remarks upon the lordship of the Risen One: in him the Father “has freed us from the power of darkness” (Colossians 1:13) and “has deprived of their strength the principalities and powers," and "has made them a public spectacle, triumphing over them in Christ" (2:15).
St. Paul urges the taking up of the shield of faith, in order to quench the “fiery arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). And Jesus himself had taught his followers to pray by asking the Father to deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 5:13).
But there is also a Jesuit connection to the devil for Pope Francis! Pope Francis, people must discern where God is calling them, and following that call requires courage and "a willingness to accept suffering and rejection."
St. Ignatius believed making progress in following Christ gives birth to a sense peace and harmony, even in the face of challenges, he said. The enemy doesn't like that and tries to disrupt it, particularly by tempting Christians to focus all their attention on themselves and their problems – real or perceived – and to doubt whether they really are or even can be capable of following the Lord.
In homilies that Pope Francis has given in which he's warning people to avoid discouragement, to seize hope, to move on with courage and not to fall prey to negativity or cynicism, he's drawing on this fundamental insight of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, the Pope’s own religious family.
Papa Francesco parts ways with the current preaching in the Church, which is silent about the devil or reduces him to a mere metaphor. The minimization of the devil is so widespread that it casts its shadow over the very words of the pope.
We must react to the devil - the pope says - as did Jesus, who replied with the word of God. With the prince of this world one cannot dialogue. “Dialogue is necessary among us, it is necessary for peace, it is an attitude that we must have among ourselves in order to hear each other, to understand each other. And it must always be maintained. Dialogue is born from charity, from love. But with that prince one cannot dialogue; one can only respond with the word of God that defends us.”
Francis teaches us: "With his death and resurrection, Jesus has ransomed us from the power of the world, from the power of the devil, from the power of the prince of this world. The origin of the hatred is this: we are saved and that prince of the world, who does not want us to be saved, hates us and gives rise to the persecution that from the earliest times of Jesus continues until today."
Several friends of mine recently said: “Francis is not a real Jesuit. My Jesuit friends never speak about the devil! They are too intelligent to do that!” Well, maybe they are not! Let’s face it: the devil is indeed playing an important role in Francis’ Petrine ministry. It's not that Pope Francis has been focusing on the evil one’s power, but temptations are the shadow side to the heart of the pope's message about "the world that is replete with the mercy and presence and fidelity of God." Francis’ references to the devil are not to be taken lightly. When Pope Francis speaks so frequently about the devil, we could say that it’s a Jesuit connection: Francis, Jesus, Ignatius, Satan and us. Che combinazione!
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB