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!”
In 2011, the total number of people at Mass in Australia on a typical weekend was about about 12.5 per cent, or one-eighth, of the total number of Catholics.
This parish will participate in another church census later this month or in early November. But let’s assume the number has dropped a little bit more, so that about 10 per cent of Catholics attend Sunday Mass.
That makes everyone sitting in this church like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel. “Eucharistia” is the Greek word for thanksgiving. You and I are literally here to approach Jesus and thank him.
Our Lord is entitled to ask, “The other nine, where are they?” But that’s his prerogative, not ours. The Church has never changed its teaching on the Sunday obligation, but through no fault of their own, many Catholics don’t know that. So I won’t condemn those who aren’t here. But I do want to thank, on our Lord’s behalf, you who are here.
The Lord loves you so much. He is interested in every detail of your life. He longs for communion with you — where he dwells in you, and you dwell in him. And you’ve responded with generosity. It would be easier to stay home on a Sunday morning. Linger over a leisurely breakfast. Or sleep in. But here you are at Mass. You’ve made God’s day.
Our attendance at Mass doesn’t make us righteous. None of us have earned our way into Heaven. You and I are like the Samaritan. We are not entitled citizens. We’re foreigners. But in his mercy, our Lord may look at us and say, “Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.”
A good aspiration for us to keep — a helpful phrase which we can repeat throughout the day — is: “I am a sinner, madly in love with God.”
“The Holy Spirit always encourages. Never discourages.” That’s a golden rule in discernment of spirits, and it’s not a bad rule in life.
People of the Holy Spirit — people who model themselves on Jesus — choose words and actions which encourage.
Today’s Gospel is a great example of that. The Lord is halfway through his public ministry. The apostles have been living with him, learning from him, for more than a year. They’ve watched Jesus perform miracles. They’ve learned how to pray and minister so that miracles happen through them too. They don’t tire of learning more. Of becoming better disciples. So they say to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” Change us.
St Luke doesn’t give much detail about our Lord’s reply. But I imagine him smiling. “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed . . .” In other words: “You don’t need to change. You’ve already got the means. Your faith is small, but God does the rest.” The Lord encourages the apostles, and he encourages us too, because we’re in exactly the same boat.
The context of today’s Gospel is important. The apostles have just been challenged by a doctrine which challenges us too. “If your brother wrongs you seven times a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I am sorry,’ you must forgive him.”
To forgive as Jesus forgives. Easier said than done! But only two things are needed. The first is willingness. The second is faith. How much faith is needed? Faith the size of a mustard seed. God does the rest.
When we find it hard to forgive, seek out the Holy Spirit! Ask for divine help. I propose five steps to forgiveness, which are in fact similar to the steps in the sacrament of reconciliation. And why not, if we are to model our behaviour on God’s?
Pray with someone else. Our Lord tells us: “When two or more are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.” So find someone you trust to pray with you.
And — this is important — we need to pray out loud. Why? The spoken word has power. The spoken word can change reality in ways that silent thinking does not.
Begin my praising God, and thanking God. Invoke the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pray for forgiveness. Make an act of contrition, just as we do at the start of every Mass. None of us can give what we have not received. So to forgive others, first we have to be forgiven.
Situate yourselves at the foot of the cross. Place the person who has hurt you there, beside the priests and scribes and soldiers at Calvary. (You and I stand in that company too.)
Contemplate our Lord’s prayer from the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Isn’t that a powerful prayer? It’s powerful in what it says. And it’s powerful in what it does not say. How often, in the Gospels, does Jesus directly forgive others? “Go. Your sins are forgiven.” But he doesn’t do that at Calvary. Why?
We can’t speculate on our Lord’s inner thoughts and then declare them gospel truths. But we can imagine. Remember, Jesus is all things to all people.
I’ve heard a story told of a young Christian woman, a university student, who was violently attacked by thugs in a park. For days after, she was in a coma. For weeks after, she was told by others, “You have to forgive your attackers. Until you forgive, you won’t heal.” But she couldn’t forgive. Her assailants were never identified, let alone arrested. The injustice was too great. She tried, but she could not forgive.
Until she contemplated our Lord’s prayer from the cross. “Father, forgive them . . .” Maybe, at that place, in that hour, Jesus felt what she felt. He couldn’t say, “I forgive you.” So instead, he prayed to the Father.
That insight may or may not be an historical fact. Regardless, it brought spiritual healing. So, in the same way, we pray to the Father too. Repeat the words of Jesus, directed now at the people who’ve hurt you. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Think of the person who hurt you, and what that person did. Feel the pain. Forgiveness takes a deeper hold when we forgive from the place of pain. Once you’re in touch with the pain, say: “In the name of Jesus, I forgive so-and-so for such-and-such.” Be specific, and pray it out loud.
The person praying with you may be able to give words to your pain. For example: “I forgive so-and-so for humiliating me and rejecting me and making me feel worthless.”
That’s it. Two things are needed to love as Jesus loves. The first is willingness. The second is faith. The tiniest faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed.
And let’s not be too proud of ourselves for adopting a supernatural outlook. After all, “we are merely servants; we have done no more than our duty.”
During World Youth Day, I was interested (but not surprised) to learn that pilgrims wanted to know more about heaven and hell.
As chaplain, I’d spend each day with a different group — exploring Krakow, attending events, finding food, waiting in queue. (There were a lot of queues!) In conversation, I kept to ‘secular subjects.’ I’d start conversations about school, or politics, or the footy, or travel, or whatever.
Conversation turned to the supernatural or spiritual only when a pilgrim raised those subjects. And then the audience would grow. Suddenly there were three people in the conversation, or four, or six, or more. It became informal catechesis — pilgrims would ask questions, and I’d do my best to give the Catholic answers. And then the discussion always — always — moved to heaven and hell.
So I can imagine that the question Jesus fields in today’s Gospel — “Sir, will there be only a few saved?” — was probably asked of him many times.
Our Lord replies in typical fashion. He doesn’t give a direct answer. He doesn’t say, “Only a few will be saved,” as the Pharisees taught. He doesn’t say, “Most or all will be saved,” as the modern world teaches.
Instead, he moves the focus away from general statistics and towards the individual. He looks his interlocutor in the eye: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door.”
I wish I’d thought of this gospel in Poland, when I fielded similar questions. I did, at least, apply its principles. What Jesus wants is clear:
- he wants us to be responsible for our choices;
- he wants to lead us to heaven;
- but he needs us to follow his lead.
We have to do our part. It’s not enough to have a superficial knowledge of Christ. We have to have a living, lasting, growing friendship with him. Friendship always involves effort and self-sacrifice, time and energy.
We don’t earn our way into heaven. Even the greatest saints are in heaven because of God’s mercy, not because of justice. But imagine what it must be like at the moment of judgement, standing before Jesus. There we are: our sins exposed by the light of truth; our lukewarm love ice cold in comparison to the burning fire of divine love.
It must take a lot of humility to stand there and seek the Lord’s mercy. It must require profound intimacy with Jesus; a sincere confidence that his love is greater than our sin. Standing there before him must demand a self-forgetful love — I think I could stand it only for his sake, not my own.
It would be easier, less painful, more self-satisfying, to turn away, to demand his departure. To condemn ourselves to hell. This is why Jesus insists we strive in this life to enter through the narrow door.
So let’s ask ourselves: what more can I do to know Jesus? To love him? To serve him?
How is my prayer life? Daily prayer and frequent confession are essential aspects of the Christian life.
How do I relate to my neighbours? We love God only as much as we love the person we like least.
How do I mould my character? Habitual acts of self-denial foster self-discipline and freedom of the heart.
But of course, our Lord doesn’t ask us to navigate the narrow door all by ourselves. He constantly helps and strengthens us, especially through holy communion and the other sacraments.
He loves us so much. Let’s try our best to enter the narrow door.
Of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the hardest one I think — the least pleasant one, certainly — is to admonish the sinner. Maybe it’s better to leave that one to other, holier, people.
And yet, if we are to become the people of mercy Pope Francis asks us to be, if we really want to be “the face of the Father’s mercy,” then we have to enact all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. So get used to the idea of admonishing the sinner, and get cracking. (Echoing a certain presidential candidate, “consider yourself admonished!”)
Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 7:36-49) provides us with two examples of our Lord exercising his divine mercy. The mercy he shows the unnamed woman — not to mention the gratitude and affection he shows her — speaks for itself. But he also shows mercy to Simon the Pharisee. He tactfully and lovingly admonishes him. From this Gospel, and a few other scriptural passages, I’ve deduced how to admonish sinners in four easy steps.
STEP ONE. Admonish yourself first. As our Lord so famously teaches, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Mt 7:5.)
- Examine your conscience. Go to confession if need be. Before you talk the talk, make sure you walk the walk!
STEP TWO. Only admonish close friends and relatives. Simon had invited Jesus to his house. Our Lord admonishes him in the context of an established relationship. A respectful and maybe even affectionate relationship.
- Don’t make it your business to admonish acquaintances and frenemies. It is love which will give your admonishment authority, so make sure anyone you admonish knows you love them. Consider building up some capital: 9 words of gratitude or encouragement, for every word of admonishment or correction.
STEP THREE. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Our Lord mentions Simon’s neglect of details and mild inhospitality, but only to illustrate a much more important point: do not permit prejudice and self-satisfaction to blind you.
- The minor defects of others can foster gratitude, rather than complaint. To quote St Josemaría Escrivá:
Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’
Admonition is only called for in the case of substantial sins and defects, which are causing real harm.
STEP FOUR. Pray on it. The Gospels give us only small glimpses into our Lord’s prayer life. It’s apparent he would often withdraw from crowds, and even his own disciples, to spend time alone with God. If we propose to imitate the Lord’s public actions (and as disciples we should!), we must also imitate his habit of prayer.
- Spend time alone, or before the Tabernacle, examining your motivation. Why do you propose to admonish this person? Is it borne of charity, or envy? Charity, or vengeance? Charity, or pettiness? If the answer is anything other than charity, ABORT MISSION!!
STEP FIVE. This one’s important! Admonish a person in private. Have you noticed how our Lord prefaces his words to Simon? “Simon, I have something to say to you.” (Lk 7:40) The Gospel doesn’t specify details, but I like to imagine that the conversation that follows is private, and we only know about it because Simon, in his humility, later made public the Lord’s parable and his correction.
- Fraternal correction is always humbling, but it should never be humiliating. Don’t admonish others via Facebook, blog or Twitter! Speak to them one on one.
Here concludes my five easy steps to admonishing sinners. Maybe calling them easy is a bit of a stretch. But anyway, there’s five of them.
Hearing about the temptation of Jesus is a very good way for us to start Lent.
Maybe you’re like me, and you made a Lenten Promise on Ash Wednesday, and four days later you’ve already broken it. Or maybe you forgot to make a Lenten Promise completely, and now Lent has already started.
Either way, it doesn’t feel very good. It feels like Lent is over for us. We’ve missed the train, or we’ve fallen off. But we can’t give in to discouragement. Discouragement is a great temptation. It’s one of the devil’s favourite tricks.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that even Jesus suffered temptation. Even though he is God, Jesus is like us in all things but sin. So the devil played his tricks on him too. If Jesus suffered temptation, then why shouldn’t we?
So let’s reject the temptation of discouragement, and start again. We might have missed the train at the station, or fallen off already, but it’s easy enough to jump on that train right now.
In that spirit, let’s talk about the Lenten Promise for a moment.
Some people think BIG. For example, they might give up biscuits for the whole of Lent. But that can become a test of endurance, which eventually invites failure. It’s like travelling on the roof of the train, hanging on for dear life. It’s no wonder people fall off!
Sometimes it’s better to think small. St Thérèse always has good advice:
“Little things done out of love are those that charm the Heart of Christ… On the contrary, the most brilliant deeds, when done without love, are but nothingness.”
Lent is not a test of endurance. Lent is a test of love! So rather than travelling on the roof of the train, maybe it’s better to travel the normal way, in the carriage, on a seat, but with the window open now and then, even though its cold and windy, and we’d prefer it closed.
Here is an example of a small Lenten Promise, done with love:
“At breakfast time I didn’t have my normal cup of tea. I had a cup of hot water instead. It’s not much of a sacrifice is it? But this is the important part: when fasting is an act of love, it is always accompanied by prayer.
So while I was having my cup of water, I prayed. I spoke to the Lord Jesus and told him that I was doing this as an act of love. I prayed for others. I asked him to answer their prayers. And I asked him to help me grow in faith and love.”
That’s what a small Lenten Promise looks like. It’s just one cup of tea, first thing in the morning: a little thing, done with love. You don’t give up your other drinks. Just the first one, at breakfast time. The window of the train is open, but only for a short time. Not long enough to fall out!
But remember — if you do fall off the train again, don’t be discouraged. Even Jesus suffered temptation. Just get back on that train, as many times as needed, until the train arrives at its destination: Easter Sunday!
This homily is shamelessly plagiarised from Fr Aidan Kieran, who blogged about “The Little Way of Fasting” one year ago. His post was reblogged this Lent, and it has become viral. If you haven’t read the original, I strongly recommend it! The Little Way of Fasting, by Fr Aidan Kieran.
Both my Masses this morning are school Masses, so I’m effectively preaching to the students. For a deeper take on fasting and penance, read Fr Ray Blake, who writes with typical wit and humility: I hate fasting.