The devil in our midst

By Brandon A. Evans

Third in a series

In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the bonds of death and powers of Satan were broken forever—defeated, but not driven out.

The devil and his demons still operate in very real ways, and combined with our fallen nature, we as humans often succumb to sin and fail our Christian calling.

The Church, along with Scripture, warns us about the devil, the flesh and the world. It is not that our flesh and our world are evil, but that they are fallen and can lead us away from God.

Satan has crept through every generation since his defeat at Calvary, but especially in our time, science and modernization tempt us to doubt his existence.

Mark Shea, senior content editor at, said that modern society wants to wish the devil away.

People will say that they don’t believe in a guy with red tights and a pointy tale, he said, but neither does the Church.

“The testimony of the Church and the testimony of the saint” tell us that God created rational creatures without bodies, and some of them turned to evil, he said.

“If you think about it from that perspective,” Shea said, “I don’t see anything in reason against it. But most people don’t reason about it, they just sort of react emotionally.”

In 2001, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, then the archbishop of Genoa, Italy, wrote a Lenten pastoral letter about the devil and how to combat him.

He listed 10 rules about the devil, with the first three being: “Do not forget that the devil exists,” “Do not forget that the devil is a tempter” and “Do not forget that the devil is very intelligent and astute.”

He received instant criticism—a large amount of it from scholars at the Milan-based Theological Studies Centre, who said that the letter ignored modern science and was a return to the Middle Ages.

In April of the same year, on Good Friday, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa preached to a full St. Peter’s Basilica and to the pope about how men and women today have accepted Satan as the mere sum of moral evil, or a personification of evil.

Two Italian Catholic publications around that time also defended the Church’s teaching about the devil as part of our faith.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, director of the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign and vicar for social justice in the Diocese of Peoria, said that this phenomenon of denying the devil reached its zenith in the middle of the last century.

“I think people are now very aware of the presence of angels, both good and bad,” he said. “I think when it was being downplayed people thought that belief in angels took away from the focus on human beings.”

A proper understanding of angels, though, helps us have a better understanding of humanity, he said.

In a recent survey in The Indianapolis Star, 76 percent of Hoosiers said that they believe in the devil.

Shea said that the existence of the devil is also clear when you look at the evils of the world.

“The whole seems to be greater than the sum of its parts,” he said. “What you tend to see is evil done on a superhuman scale.”

When we look back at the 20th century, he said, we can’t just say that the atrocities that occurred then were because of some sociological flaw.

Indeed, the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia explored the question of what would have happened if, at any point after the Fall, Christ would have bound the fallen angels so tightly so that they could no longer tempt mankind.

“In that case, the evil would clearly have been far less than it is now, for the activity of Satan does much more than merely add a further source of temptation to the weakness of the world and the flesh; it means a combination and an intelligent direction of all the elements of evil,” it says.

“Do [Catholics] believe in the devil?” asked Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar
general. “I think most Catholics—the overwhelming majority—would say that they do. Do they really understand what the Church’s interpretation of the devil is? I would venture to say a lot of them do not.”

He said that it was due to bad catechesis in the last 30 or 40 years, but also because “the existence of the devil is not something that we let come up in daily conversation.”

Of course, for some people the devil is more than an obscure reality. There are times and extraordinary instances where Satan and his demons make themselves known in a radical way.

It is something that “Father Jones” has had to deal with on a regular basis for the last three decades. (Father Jones is an archdiocesan priest whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity.)

He served for 24 years as part-time chaplain for the now closed Central State Hospital in Indianapolis. He saw many people in that mental hospital who had problems far beyond what you would find in a psychological handbook.

Father Jones would frequently take Communion to people in the hospital, hidden inside a pyx inside his clothing. Nevertheless, as he walked the hallways with the Blessed Sacrament, people would curse and spit on him.

Then, on his way out, with the pyx empty, they would be friendly toward him.

He once went into a room to anoint a man and immediately the patient started hissing and making all sorts of horrible noises.

“As I got closer to the bed,” Father Jones said, “he started crawling up the wall on his back.”

He went to the nurse and told her to tell him when the man was in a coma.

Father Jones is the priest that the archdiocese refers people to when they think they are having diabolical problems. He handles, on average, a couple of calls each month.

It started many years ago when he got a call from the mother of a police officer.

“There was all kinds of strange things going on in a house on the east side of town,” Father Jones said. “The police were scared to death … The door flew open and things were flying out of the house and things were flying around inside the house, and it was just a mess.”

So he agreed to go, but only after the press had left. When he arrived to pray with the family, he found all sorts of damage to the house.

“One of the police officers walked into the bedroom where there was a boom box on the bed and it jumped off the bed onto the floor and the bed turned upside down on top of it, and he said it was hotter than heck in there and [felt] like worms crawling all over you,” Father Jones said.

Father Jones went back to the house three times before things calmed down.

This was a case of what is called “diabolical obsession.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia, second edition, said that the term “refers to hostile action of the devil or an evil spirit besetting anyone from without.”

A hostile action besetting someone from within is called “diabolical possession.” This is “the state of a person whose body has fallen under the control of the devil or a demon,” the encyclopedia says.

There are many examples of this kind of possession in the New Testament, particularly in places where Jesus drives out evil spirits.

Catholic thought holds, though, that this type of diabolical activity is rare and requires the full consent of the person.

Father Jones said that these cases of diabolical obsession are usually precipitated in households that don’t pray, and when the occult is meddled with through Ouija boards, Tarot cards, seers, séances, etc.

“Those are all avenues to let the devil into a person’s life,” Father Jones said. As for the claim that people make that such activity is harmless, he said, “That’s fine. Let them think it. It’s not true.

“They may think it’s fun,” he said, “but when things start happening to them, then they figure out that it isn’t fun and then that’s when I get calls.”

Father Cantalamessa, in his homily three years ago, said that the current interest in the occult shows that Satan cannot be explained away.

“Thrown out through the door, Satan has come back in through the window,” he said. “Thrown out of the faith, he has come back through superstition.”

“People that dabble with the occult sometimes get, literally speaking, a hell of a lot more than they bargained for, and that can scare the daylights out of you,” Shea said.

It scares Father Jones.

“It’s not a fun thing. It’s scary as heck every time you get one of those calls,” he said. “They’re all scary because you never know what you’re going to run into and you never want to match wits with the devil because you’re going to lose every time.”

He spends at least an hour before the Blessed Sacrament before he goes out on a call. He also knows what can be at stake: sometimes people get in deeper and deeper and then the devil does more than just scare them.

Father Jones talked about a 16-year-old girl who joined a Satanic cult.

“She got herself pregnant so she could have a baby and could sacrifice it on the altar to the devil—which she did. She killed her baby on the altar,” he said. “She was eventually arrested and is doing time in prison.”

Still, the even more wicked works of the devil are those that aren’t so extravagant—those times when we are lured by him to commit evils that tear at the Kingdom of God.

And just as our era has been tempted to doubt the existence of the father of lies, so it has been tempted to doubt the existence and the effects of true evil.

(Next week: The denial of sin and the effects of our choices on the world.) †


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