Pope Francis preaches about the devil a lot. Much more than the average priest. Or this average priest, anyway.
Unfortunately, the press gives minimal coverage to such remarks, and every year, I suspect, belief in the devil diminishes among Catholics. That’s why, this first Sunday of Lent, I’ve distributed in my parishes a one page sampler of the Holy Father’s warnings about the devil.
There is a distinct theme in the Holy Father’s remarks. In typical Ignatian fashion, he focuses on how the devil subverts our relationships. To cite a few examples:
“The Adversary wants to keep us separated from God . . . and therefore sows the seeds of pessimism and bitterness in our hearts.”
“The devil attacks the family so much. That demon hates the family and seeks to destroy it.”
“The devil plants evil where there is good, trying to divide people, families, and nations.”
“Behind every rumour there is jealousy and envy. And gossip divides the community, destroys the community. Rumours are a diabolical weapon.”
Theorists speculate (who could really know?) that only God has unique access to our interior life: to our thoughts and emotions and sensations. Demons and angels more closely resemble humans, in that they receive insight into our interior life only through our external behaviour: actions, speech, body language. In that case, it makes sense that the devil would target our relationships with God and with fellow creatures. He can observe our behaviour and then exploit weak spots and defects.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines conversations between an old devil, and a young devil who is learning the craft of tempting souls. Lewis is at his best, I think, when he describes how our relationships — even loving relationships — are subverted by misunderstanding and psychological games. Everyone should read the book; I also recommend the radio play (starring Andy Serkis).
In Hebrew etymology, “Satan” describes an accuser or adversary. The Septuagint rendering of Satan is διάβολος — diabolos or devil — which describes a slanderer. It’s no coincidence that Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as another παράκλητος (Jn 14:16, 26) — “paracletus” in the Latin Vulgate; in English: “Paraclete” (Douay-Rheims); “Comforter” (KJV); “Counsellor” (RSV).
Where the devil accuses us before God, and even slanders us, the Holy Spirit and Jesus himself will defend us, and advocate on our behalf. I think this happens in this life and at the judgement. Whenever I minister to a person who is close to death, I warn them of the devil’s tactics. The saints tell us that in our final hours, the devil stops at nothing to damn us, even revealing himself and communicating directly.
“The devil will insist that you don’t deserve heaven,” I advise. “He will recount your sins and defects, and insist you deserve hell.”
At this point most people agree that it’s probably true. (Except, in my experience, Mediterraneans. Italians and Maltese are fired up at my suggestion, and ready to do battle!) My advice to everyone — Mediterraneans included — is that the devil is correct. None of us earn Heaven. All of us deserve Hell. “But Jesus wants you in Heaven. He has prepared a place for you in his Father’s house. He has earned your place in Heaven. Hold on to that conviction, implore divine mercy, and call on the name of Jesus if the devil preys on you.”
I don’t know how useful that advice is. I have no doubt that the prayers I pray and the sacraments I minister — confession, anointing, Viaticum — are very useful. The devil is real, and we have cause to fear him. But, as the Holy Father reminds us, “God is stronger! Do you believe this? God is stronger!”
Lent has begun, and if you’re reading this on Ash Wednesday, you’re fasting, and you’re probably hungry right now.
Roman Catholics are obliged to fast — one normal meal and two small snacks — on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But Maronite Catholics observe a much stricter Lent:
In regards to the Lenten penitential practices of the Maronites residing in Australia, and in accordance with the guidelines released by His Beatitude and Eminence Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, we recommend the following practices to the faithful of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia:
• Fasting from midnight to midday on all weekdays: no food or drink is to be consumed, with the exception of water;
I haven’t looked it up, but it’s a fair bet that the other Catholic rites are also more disciplined than us Latins.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping Roman Catholics from observing voluntary fasts in Lent. I know plenty of people who have decided to fast on every Friday in Lent, and some who will fast on Wednesdays too. (Wednesday being the day that Judas conspired against our Lord.)
The idea of fasting is noble and even inspiring, but the experience of fasting is hard. So let me give you some encouragement.
Here’s Fr Mike Schmitz, who in eight minutes gives four spiritual reasons for fasting:
I especially like his point about us becoming co-redeemers with Christ. But when your stomach is really growling, and you’re struggling to reach spiritual heights, how about a good dose of material self-interest? Here’s a longer video — 1 hour — but a very interesting one, on the health benefits of fasting:
So research shows fasting improves our resistance to stress, reduces blood pressure, reduces blood sugar, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces the incidence of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and improves cognitive ability. Maybe this detracts a bit from what Fr Mike says about sacrifice. But on the other hand, it says something about God’s design, I think, that good spiritual practices do so much good for the body too.
Incidentally, this latter video launched a craze in Britain for intermittent fasting, especially in the form of the 5:2 diet. I take fad diets with a grain of salt. But don’t take nutritional advice from a priest; this is just a post of encouragement from a presently quite hungry blogger!
There is a wonderful insight from St Vincent de Paul, in the Office of Readings on his feast day. It’s an insight that probably every saint has received and shared — not to mention countless disciples who aren’t canonised. But St Vincent has most famously formulated it:
Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God.
Godly “distractions” aren’t limited to serving the poor. For example, when you’re trying to meditate, focusing your thoughts on God, but other thoughts invade — that conversation you had yesterday, or that friend you haven’t called for a while — that may not be a “distraction.” That may be an indication, from God, to pray for that person, for his or her intentions; or to get in touch.
In the same way, although it is understandable to consider the clergy abuse scandal as a devastating distraction from the Church’s mission, maybe even a diabolical means of destroying the Church’s moral authority, I suspect the opposite. The never-ending Royal Commission, the hostile media coverage, the horrendous stories and shameful statistics — maybe none of this is a distraction. Maybe this is where God wants the Church to focus its attention. Maybe this is central to the mission of the Church in Australia.
It’s becoming more and more evident, I think, that the sexual abuse of children is not ‘a Catholic problem,’ and nor is it an historical problem. Studies suggest a substantial proportion of Australian children are abused, and that the rate of abuse is growing. This is a universal problem, and a current one. The world is in trouble. And the Church exists for the world, not for itself.
The Catholic Church has sustained a humiliating exposé which has done a lot of harm. But it’s not in vain. In fact, I think the benefits of this shameful exposé outweigh the costs. Catholic schools and parishes are now the safest places for children in Australia, and Catholic schools and parishes are the most dangerous places for paedophiles. The staff in my parish schools, and all the people on my parish councils, and I, have signed and abide by codes of conduct which eliminate opportunities for adults to prey on children. We all know what to do if we believe someone violates the code — how to respond, who to speak to, which legal authorities to call. That’s significant. Paedophiles cultivate and groom adults, not just children. They depend on the naiveté and inaction of good people. A culture which eliminates that possibility saves children.
That’s the future, but the present is maybe even more important. A lot of pastoral care is owed to a lot of people who have suffered from clerical child abuse. And a lot can be learned from them too. Their suffering is not in vain either; their experiences and their insights can enrich the Church and assist its mission. These victims and survivors are not apart from the Church. They are the Church. Christ identifies with them, and so should we all. I hope Church leaders are listening to them. We have so much more to learn.
To paraphrase St Vincent:
Do not become upset or feel guilty because the evangelising mission of the Church is interrupted by the fallout and response to the clergy abuse scandal. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. Remember that this very service is performed for God.
None of this is a distraction. This is where we need to focus our energy. Our prayer. Our apostolic zeal. God knows what he is about.
So PJ Media reports this happened in Texas earlier in the month:
A pastor made a scene on Friday by preaching about the falsehood of Santa Claus at a mall. He walked around the Santa exhibit, where kids and parents stood in line to see Santa, shouting that Santa isn’t real and that Christmas is about Jesus Christ.
You can watch the pastor make a fool of himself at the link, which includes a Youtube clip the pastor himself filmed.
I’m reminded of the wisdom of the Catholic Church’s repeated insistence that parents are the primary educators of their children, and everyone else, including ecclesiastics, must defer to them:
- The Catechism calls the rights of parents “primordial and inalienable.”
- In Familiaris Consortio, St John Paul II called parents’ ministry “original and irreplaceable.”
- St Thomas Aquinas compares parents’ duty and right to teach their children to the duties and rights of the priest:
“Some only propagate and guard spiritual life by a spiritual ministry: this is the role of the sacrament of Orders; others do this for both corporal and spiritual life, and this is brought about by the sacrament of marriage, by which a man and a woman join in order to beget offspring and bring them up to worship God.”
Hence I’m in pretty good company calling the Texan pastor’s actions out of order. He has no business subverting the rights of parents.
Apart from that, it’s far from clear that he’s right to decry the Santa Claus myth. The author of the PJ Media item linked above relates the Christian origins of gift-giving from St Nicholas. And even the modern Coca-Cola adulteration of St Nick does a lot of good.
Case in point: Eric Schmitt-Matzen’s apostolate, borne from a chance conversation at his local church, and an uncanny likeness to the real deal.
Put me down as a believer.
I had barely begun in the seminary when Pope John Paul II died. It was a very sad time. It felt like I my own grandfather had died.
In the midst of my grief, I was very impressed by a statement from Bishop Javier Echevarría, the prelate of Opus Dei. He exhorted the faithful not only to pray for the late pope and his successor, but also to love and revere the new pope as we had the old:
This is also the moment to pray for the next Pope, for whom we Catholics are ready from this moment to give all of our filial affection.
I made this my prayer intention during the 2005 conclave (and again in 2013).
A few years later, in 2008, I met Don Javier when he visited Melbourne. It is the custom, when greeting European bishops, to kiss their episcopal ring, but as I bent down to do this, Don Javier sort of scooped me up into his arms and hugged me. I greeted him as “Your Excellency,” but he corrected me in heavily-accented English. “No! You must call me Father, for we are father and son!”
A few years later again, in 2010, the day after I was ordained a deacon, I wrote a letter to Don Javier. (I addressed him as Father, not Excellency!) I requested admission into Opus Dei, to which he gave his assent.
And now, in 2016, this father of mine has died, and the experience is not dissimilar to the death of St John Paul II. Of course I have already started praying for his successor — and also for myself, that I might foster filial affection for the next Father.
Meanwhile, I’m praying for Don Javier with gratitude and admiration.