July 12, 2013

Priests reflect on Pope Francis’ frequent mentioning of the devil

By Sean Gallagher

GREENWOOD—Pope Francis is making headlines by focusing his first encyclical letter on the light of faith.

But in the first months of his papacy, he’s also given a good amount of attention to the Prince of Darkness.

Starting on March 15, two days after he was elected bishop of Rome, Pope Francis has regularly reflected in his homilies and on other occasions on the role of the devil in the life of faith.

This habit caught the attention of Italian media members so much that on May 19, Pentecost Sunday, some of them speculated that the pontiff had performed an exorcism after his Mass at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican when he prayed over a disabled young man.

The speculation was prominent enough that the Vatican press office issued a statement the next day stating that no exorcism took place.

Two priests who minister in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have also taken note of Pope Francis’ tendency to talk about the devil.

But Father Vincent Lampert, the archdiocese’s exorcist, and Jesuit Father Thomas Widner, director of spiritual formation at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis, are more interested in how the pope is using references to the devil to strengthen the daily lives of faith of ordinary Catholics than in any possible confrontations between Pope Francis and the Evil One.

During a general audience address on June 12, Pope Francis said, “It’s enough to open a newspaper to know that evil exists, that the devil acts. But I want to say loudly that God is stronger.”

On May 4, the pope said in a daily Mass homily that the devil’s influence in our lives can be defeated through God’s word and humility. “Humility and meekness: These are the weapons that the prince of the world, the spirit of the world does not tolerate, because he makes proposals for worldly power, proposals of vanity, proposals for riches.”

On March 24, Palm Sunday, Pope Francis in a homily given before a congregation that filled St. Peter’s Square, said that Christians should be careful in moments when they are discouraged in their life of faith. “In this moment, the enemy—the devil—comes, often disguised as an angel and slyly speaks his word to us,” he said.

And on March 15, Pope Francis, in one of his first statements as supreme pontiff, told the cardinals of the Church to “never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day” and instead trust in the Holy Spirit that provides “the courage to persevere.”

These and other examples, Father Lampert said, can be an important reminder to Catholics that the devil usually uses ordinary strategies against us instead of bizarre tactics that are sometimes portrayed in horror movies.

“Ordinary demonic activity is temptation, which is something we all struggle with,” said Father Lampert, who is also pastor of SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood. “Those are the things that Pope Francis is touching on—the gossiping, the division, bitterness, resentment, disappointment, whatever it might be.

“We shouldn’t neglect the way that the devil may try to subtly get into our lives through temptation.”

Father Lampert also said that Pope Francis doesn’t give attention to the devil just to talk about him, but instead has a more positive goal in mind.

“He points further on,” Father Lampert said. “Who’s the one who helps us to overcome [the devil]? Namely, Jesus Christ. Having a relationship with Jesus Christ—a personal one and a communal one. To have a communal relationship with Christ is pointing to the important role of the Church.”

Father Lampert has given this advice on many occasions when people have come to him claiming that the devil is negatively affecting their lives. However, they are usually disappointed, he said, because they’re looking for “a quick fix.”

“I say to them, ‘A relationship with Jesus Christ that is both personal and communal is what will safeguard you from evil,’ ” he said. “They look at me like I’m crazy. They’re like, ‘Can’t you just throw some holy water on me and say some prayers and I’ll go about my business? But I don’t need Jesus in my life.’ ”

Father Widner said that the pope’s frequent mentioning of the devil might be related to his formation as a Jesuit. Pope Francis was a member of the order from 1958 until he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992.

He said that an awareness of the role that the devil can play in a person’s life of faith has a prominent role in the spirituality of the Jesuits because it was an important part of the life of faith of its founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

“Ignatius was very aware of a kind of dualism that existed in his own life. God influenced his life,” Father Widner said. “And he was aware … that there was an evil spirit, which equals the devil, that is at work in our lives.”

However, Father Widner also noted that the pope’s tendency to talk about the devil might be related to a renewed recognition of his presence in the world after a period in which demonic activity was greatly downplayed or even denied altogether.

“Just by mentioning the devil on a regular basis, the Holy Father is saying, ‘He exists. He’s there,’ ” said Father Widner, 71. “[The pope] is making it a part of our everyday language again. He’s making him a part of our lives again in a way that we haven’t seen maybe since I was growing up in grade school or high school.”

Father Lampert said that, just as the devil usually works in people’s lives in ordinary ways, it is the ordinary practices of the Catholic faith that can defeat him.

“To me, if we’re going to Mass, if we’re celebrating the sacraments and we’re praying, the devil is already on the run,” he said. “We’re doing the very ordinary things that we should be doing.”

Father Widner agreed, and added that the devil’s suggestions may be at work when people start to downplay their capability to live the Catholic faith.

“If that’s going on in one’s faith life, you have to ask the question, ‘Who are you letting influence you?’ ” Father Widner said. “Maybe you have a personality disorder, a lack of confidence that’s partly responsible. But is that also being affected by some outside force, i.e., the devil, who is trying to convince you that you [can’t live out the faith]?”

As an exorcist, Father Lampert is invited to give presentations across the country on his unusual ministry. And large crowds usually come to hear him speak, perhaps expecting to hear him describe strange encounters with possessed individuals.

“People are somewhat surprised that I don’t in my presentations feed into all of the craziness and misconceptions, but instead focus on the positive aspects of faith,” Father Lampert said. “My basic message is that evil is a reality, and our relationship with Christ will help us fight that reality.” †

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