The world’s press and the blogosphere have been abuzz for several months now with comments on how frequently Pope Francis talks about our enemy, the devil. Not only does he talk frequently about the devil, but he talks in such a way that indicates he actually believes in the devil’s existence and daily relevance to each of our lives — as should all faithful and well-formed Catholics.
There has been such an atmosphere of skepticism in the world, and in some places in the Church, about what could be called the “biblical world view” — what Jesus and the Apostles actually believed about the world — that Pope Francis’ frequent comments on the reality of the devil come across to many as shocking. But belief in the devil and his work to destroy souls is an integral part of the biblical revelation and is authoritatively taught by the Church (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 391-395).
Why Pope Francis speaks about the devil with the frequency that he does perhaps can be traced to a few special factors. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and an integral part of Jesuit formation is the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, where meditation on the reality of Satan and the need to discern and resist his works it plays an important role. Discerning the work of the evil one, the work of the human spirit, and the work of the Holy Spirit is foundational for Jesuit spirituality.
Perhaps another reason that Pope Francis speaks about the devil with such frequency is that he is discerning the devil’s work in the world today and in the lives of individuals and knows that unless we advert to this reality we won’t utilize the means necessary to defeat the devil’s work.
While still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he discerned the hand of Satan behind the attack on marriage, an attack that is still being carried out with unusual hostility and rapidity in many countries today. When a law in favor of same-sex “marriage” was proposed in 2010 (and later passed) in Argentina, he said:
At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill… but a move of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.
He also has identified the devil’s work in discouragement, hopelessness, in the profound deception of thinking one’s darkness is actually light, in the calumny that destroys people and reputations and in the hostility towards Christians which is producing in our time more martyrs than at any time in Christian history.
What then are the means that the Lord has given us to recognize and defeat the work of the devil in our own lives? Some of the most helpful biblical teaching on this is contained in Ephesians, where we are told that our battle is not just against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities, the “world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” Because this is the case we are told to “put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to resist on the evil day, and having done everything, to hold your ground.” (cf. Eph 6:10-20)
What is this armor that is needed to resist evil and hold our ground? It is truth; it is holiness; it is clarity about salvation; it is commitment to mission, to knowing and utilizing the Word of God. Not only to defend ourselves from the lies of the evil one but to speak words of truth that set other people free from demonic deception and bondage.
In this short article, though, there is one part of the spiritual armor, the “shield of faith,” that I would particularly like to comment on.
The shield of faith is given to us to “quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” What are these flaming arrows? They are the temptations, the lies, the seductions of the demons intended to draw us away from God and the way that leads to salvation. Faith has a two-fold meaning. On the one hand faith is that complete trust and surrender to God which knows him to be all good and worthy of all our adoration and obedience — that friendship with Christ, that personal relationship, about which recent Popes have spoken so frequently. And a key to discerning what is from God and what is from the enemy is familiarity with the “voice” of the Lord through a relationship that grows in depth and intimacy through prayer, that “praying at all times in the Spirit,” that Ephesians urges us to. On the other hand faith is those truths revealed to us that are necessary for our salvation concerning, Christ, the Church, and the life of holiness that leads to the beatitude of heaven. These truths also contain clear and explicit warnings about what will exclude us from the kingdom. The devil is particularly interested in deceiving us in these areas which is why St. Paul so explicitly and repeatedly warns us in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
Do you not know that the immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor those who practice homosexuality nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
Similar lists are to be found in Galatians, Ephesians and Revelation.
Unfortunately, many of our fellow Catholics don’t know that a spiritual battle is being waged against them and haven’t availed themselves of the spiritual armor that can protect them and enable them to help set others free. Many of our fellow Catholics are drifting along with the culture, believing whatever they hear from the most foolish sources, moving along on that wide and easy path that leads to destruction (see Mt. 7: 13-14). The “flaming darts” of the enemy are entering many of our fellow Catholics, planting lies, sowing suspicion, stirring up disordered desires, and presenting rationalizations for sinful behavior.
While the primary foundation for engaging successfully in this spiritual warfare is contained in these texts we have just considered, Pope Francis has pointed out to us some additional special helps we have as Catholics that we need to have recourse to in these challenging times.
This past summer, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI together consecrated the Vatican to St. Joseph and St. Michael the Archangel. Pope Francis asked for St. Joseph’s fatherly protection over each of us and over the whole Church, and he invoked the protection of St. Michael the Archangel against the “enemy par excellence, the devil,” asking St. Michael “to defend us from the evil one and banish him.”
How can we not think of that prayer to St. Michael the Archangel that Pope Leo XIII more than one hundred years ago asked us to pray for protections against the evil one, a prayer he was purported to have instituted in response to a vision of Satan’s rampage in which the evil one appeared as a “wild boar” ripping up the Lord’s vineyard?
And then Pope Francis has also asked us to avail ourselves of another, very special, spiritual weapon as a defense against the evil one: the intercession of Mary through praying the Rosary:
The Mother of Christ and of the Church is always with us… Mary struggles with us, sustains Christians in their fight against the forces of evil. Prayer with Mary, especially the rosary, has this “suffering dimension,” that is of struggle, a sustaining prayer in the battle against the evil one and his accomplices.
We are in a battle, as individuals and as a Church, but we have not been left orphans. The Lord himself is with us along with the whole heavenly court, and in a special way Mary and St. Michael the Archangel. But we need to do our part and put on the whole armor of God. If we do, we will not only be able to defend ourselves against the “wickedness and snares of the devil,” but we also will wield the “sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God,” and take our part in the New Evangelization.