The following is a feature article written by Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. printed in the Catholic Herald Newspaper of London, England, August 21, 2015. In this feature, Fr. Rosica explores the themes of Pope Francis' teaching on the devil and his influence upon this world. "[...] The work of the Devil engenders bitterness; it visits us under many disguises; it is poisonous and deceptive. And the only way to face it is by a constant daily struggle..."
The Argentine Pontiff has spoken about Satan more than any other recent pope. He isn't trying to scare us, but to inspire us to fight a daily spiritual battle
In his daily homilies, addresses and tweets, Pope Francis returns with surprising frequency to one topic: the Devil. Francis's Devil has many names: Satan, the Accuser, the Evil One, the Father of Lies, the Ancient Serpent, Tempter, Seducer, Great Dragon, Father of War, Father of Lies, Father of Hate, the Enemy, Darkness, Prince of this World and just plain Demon.
Public opinion, both Catholic and secular, has often responded to the Pope's insistence on the Devil with dismissiveness, indifference or, at best, a strange curiosity. The Pope has ruffled the feathers of some modern pastoral ministers and theologian types who feel that such frequent mention of the Devil is a bit outdated. This Jesuit Pope is swimming in waters in which very few Catholic priests and bishops have dared to tread these past years. With his continual references to the Devil, Pope Francis parts ways with the current preaching in the Church, which is far too silent about the Devil and his insidious ways or reduces him to a mere metaphor.
Francis speaks so often about the Devil that a journalist once asked me if the Pope is a fan of Harry Potter. Why is Francis so concerned with the Prince of Demons? It is because he believes that Satan is a real person: the most insidious enemy of the Church.
Here are some clues to this papal diabolical preoccupation. Though Francis is Pope, he is also Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit through and through. He is drawing on some fundamental insights of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, the Pope's own religious family. As a faithful disciple of Ignatius for his entire Jesuit life, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been "discerning spirits". Francis sees the Devil not as a myth or theological proposition but as a daily reality: the "prince of this world" who hates holiness and tempts us through riches, power, and pride to persuade us to look to our own resources, not God's.
Pope Francis clearly sees the Devil as the origin of the bloody, violent conflicts in this world. Last year in a deeply symbolic prayer service for peace held in the Vatican gardens, which brought together the likes of Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Francis told them: "More than once we have been on the verge of peace, but the Evil One, employing a variety of means, has succeeded in blocking it. That is why we are here, because we know and we believe that we need the help of God."
Francis believes Satan is a real person: the Church's most insidious enemy
Since the beginning of his Petrine Ministry, Francis has been warning us that whoever wants to follow Jesus must be aware of the reality of the Devil. 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. The Evil One triumphs when his constant gnawing away at us distances us from the way 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. First, his temptation begins gradually but grows and is always growing. Secondly, it infects another person; it spreads to another and seeks to be part of the community. And, thirdly, in the end, in order to calm the soul, it justifies itself.
In his comments about the Devil and the power of evil, we realize that the Pope is not speaking in esoteric theological terms for an elite audience. Rather he is issuing an urgent call to arms, to immediate action. For every Christian. The Pope is also offering very concrete steps to do combat with the Devil and the reign of evil.
Here are seven provocative statements about the Devil from the Pope's reflections:
- The Devil offers us bitterness.
- The Devil often comes disguised as an angel and slyly speaks his word to us.
- However shrewd the Devil is, it is Jesus ultimately who battles him.
- The Devil is poison; he brings jealousy, envy and strife.
- We need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against the Devil.
- The Devil is intelligent. ("He knows more theology than all the theologians together," according to Francis.)
- Fighting the Devil is a continuous battle, a daily struggle.
In a prepared text that he ended up not reading at the large youth rally in Paraguay in July, Francis presented the Devil's job description.
The text said: "In the Bible, the Devil is called the Father of Lies. What he promises, or better, what he makes you think, is that, if you do certain things, you will be happy. And later, when you think about it, you realize that you weren't happy at all. That you were up against something which, far from giving you happiness, made you feel more empty, even sad.
"Friends: the Devil is a con artist. He makes promise after promise, but he never delivers. He'll never really do anything he says. He doesn't make good on his promises. He makes you want things which he can't give, whether you get them or not. He makes you put your hopes in things that will never make you happy. That's his game, his strategy.
"He talks a lot, he offers a lot, but he doesn't deliver. He is a con artist because everything he promises us is divisive, it is about comparing ourselves to others, about stepping over them in order to get what we want. He is a con artist because he tells us that we have to abandon our friends, and never to stand by anyone. Everything is based on appearances. He makes you think that your worth depends on how much you possess."
So according to the Pontiff, the work of the Devil engenders bitterness; it visits us under many disguises; it is poisonous and deceptive. And the only way to face it is by a constant daily struggle. Just as the Devil employs deceptive strategies to tempt us, so too must Christians be wise and shrewd in doing battle with this master con artist.
Is Pope Francis's insistence on the Devil and evil a novelty in the modern era? Not really: his predecessors also spoke of the Devil, but perhaps not with the same frequency or colourful language. St John Paul II gave several long catecheses on the Devil during weekly audience addresses. Benedict XVI also referred to the Devil on several occasions in general audience addresses. In one poignant Angelus address in 2012, the German pontiff spoke of the insincerity of the one who betrayed Jesus.
"The problem is that Judas did not go away, and his most serious fault was false-hood, which is the mark of the Devil," he said. "This is why Jesus said to the Twelve: `One of you is a devil."'
Here are a few points to keep in mind before one concludes that Pope Francis is overly concerned with the demonic powers at work in the world today.
Pope Francis says the Devil 'knows more theology than all the theologians together'
According to Francis, Jesus responded to the Devil with the Word of God in hand. "With the prince of this world one cannot engage in dialogue," the Pope explained. "Dialogue is necessary among us for peace: it is an attitude that we must have among ourselves in order to hear each other, to understand each other. 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 also teaches that "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 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 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).
The Devil is playing an important role in Francis's Petrine ministry. It's not that Francis has been focusing on the Evil One's power, but rather that temptations are the realistic flipside to the heart of the Pope's message about the world that is replete with the mercy, presence and fidelity of God. The references to the Devil which we find in the words and teachings of Francis are anything but secondary. Francis is dead serious about the Devil — and we should be as well.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B. is CEO of Canada's Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation. He is also the English language media attaché to the Holy See Press Office