The Gospel for today’s (Matt. 8:28-34) Mass presents us with a story of Jesus driving out the demons which plagued two men in the territory of the Gadarenes. These men were so depleted by the effects of evil that they chose to live in the tombs.
This account is only one of many similar accounts in the Gospels. Yet, how often do we hear homilies on the reality of evil and how to confront it, in our own lives and the lives of those around us?
Fortunately, that is all changing.
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Last year, on a crisp Friday morning in October, at the Chapel of St Martha, Francis, the Bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, did what every priest throughout the world does daily, he presided at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
There, during the Liturgy of the Word, his task was the task of every priest or deacon called on to preach, to break open the word proclaimed by the lectors and the cleric assigned to read the Gospel.
That Gospel that day was taken from St. Luke:
“When Jesus had driven out a demon, some of the crowd said: “By the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he drives out demons.” Others, to test him, asked him for a sign from heaven. But he knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that it is by Beelzebul that I drive out demons. If I, then, drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own people drive them out? Therefore they will be your judges.
“But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man fully armed guards his palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him, he takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
“When an unclean spirit goes out of someone, it roams through arid regions searching for rest
but, finding none, it says, ‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there, and the last condition of that man is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:15-26)
This was one of the many Gospel texts which clearly reveal the undeniable claim that the devil is not only real – but that the devil is our enemy because he is the enemy of Jesus Christ – and we belong to Him.
So, what did Pope Francis preach about on that Friday morning? He preached on that Gospel text, not around it. He made it clear that the devil is real and that Jesus Christ truly confronted him.
He also made it clear that all who bear the name Christian in this hour face demonic opposition as well. Then, he reminded us that we have been equipped for the battle and we must be prepared to engage in it!
This man who took the name Francis when he was chosen to assume the Chair of Peter, did what his namesake, the little poor man of Assisi, did quite regularly – he called all who listened to his words to take the task of spiritual warfare seriously and to learn how to engage in it effectively.
To the chagrin of some who think all this talk of the devil is silly or outdated, but to the great dismay of the demons of hell itself, Pope Francis spoke of the devil.
He called those at daily Mass, and all who read his sermon, to take the Bible passages that mention the devil seriously. He spoke directly about the fact that spiritual warfare is part of the Christian life and mission.
We all need to hear his message and respond!
In his introduction to The Screwtape Letters, a brilliant work exposing the unseen spiritual warfare taking place around all of us which uses a series of letters between two demons – the older Screwtape, an instructor and the younger student Wormwood – the great apologist CS Lewis wrote:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
We are engaged in a spiritual war for the souls of men and women in this urgent hour. We face very real personal opposition from the devil in our own lives – and all around us. We must always remember that the struggle we face, even though it works itself out on so many different fronts, is, at root, a spiritual one.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus:
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood; but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph. 6:12,13)
He also wrote these words to the Christians in Corinth: “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Cor. 10:4,5)
The successor of Peter, Francis, was speaking to you and me. Let’s consider more of what he had to say. It is pretty blunt:
‘”There are some priests who, when they read this Gospel passage, this and others say: ‘But, Jesus healed a person with a mental illness’. They do not read this, no? It is true that at that time, they could confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there was the devil!
And we do not have the right to simplify the matter, as if to say: ‘All of these (people) were not possessed; they were mentally ill’. No! The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil.”
This invitation to not downplay, minimize or confuse the FACT of the existence of the devil is refreshing! Pope Francis challenged all of us to not be naïve when we are faced with the temptation to “to diminish the power of the Lord.”
He proclaimed, “There is always the temptation to want to diminish the figure of Jesus, as if he were “a healer at most” and so as not to take him “so seriously“.
Sadly, that temptation has made its way into too many homilies. Even worse, it has made its way into our daily lives as Christians. We often behave like the materialist to which CS Lewis referred.
As is his custom, the Holy Father broke up his homily, as he breaks most of his instructions, into three parts. He gave us three ways in which we all can fight the evil one as he manifests his perfidious plans in our own lives and in our own age.
We must recognize the truth of his existence. We must recognize our allies in the battle. We must recognize the ongoing nature of the struggle so that we are ready when it comes to do battle.
Here are more of his words:
“Do not confuse the truth. Jesus fights the devil: first criterion.
Second criterion: he who is not with Jesus is against Jesus. There are no attitudes in the middle.
Third criterion: vigilance over our hearts because the devil is astute. He is never cast out forever. It will only be so on the last day.”
“Vigilance, because his strategy is this: ‘You became Christian. Advance in your faith. I will leave you. I will leave you tranquil. But then when you are used to not being so watchful and you feel secure, I will come back’. The Gospel today begins with the devil being cast out and ends with the devil coming back! St. Peter would say: ‘It is like a fierce lion that circles us’. It is like that.”
‘But, Father, you a little ancient. You are frightening us with these things’ No, not me! It is the Gospel! And these are not lies: it is the Word of the Lord! Let us ask the Lord for the grace to take these things seriously. He came to fight for our salvation. He won against the devil! Please, let us not do business with the devil! He seeks to return home, to take possession of us. Do not relativize; be vigilant! And always with Jesus!”
The passage Francis referred to in his homily, comparing the devil to a roaring lion, is found in the first letter which the Apostle Peter wrote to the early Church. The Christians had already been dispersed due to a violent and hostile persecution against them. That persecution was led by some in that culture who did not like their message or their manner of life. Here is a snippet from the letter:
“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. (1 Peter 5:8-10)
The struggle in which we are engaged in today concerns a clash of worldviews and competing definitions of human freedom and flourishing. It concerns the very nature of marriage, the structure of our relationships with one another, and the definition and obligations of love itself!
Christians (at least orthodox, faithful ones) are now routinely presented as unenlightened, as somehow forcing our view on others. Our positions on the dignity of every human life, marriage, family, authentic freedom and the nature of truth as being objective, is what actually frees people from the bondage of disordered appetites and the emptiness they always bring about in people’s lives. These truths are objectively true for all men and women.
However, in this age of relativism, there are a growing number of folks who do not like us even making such a claim. Yet, the truth is still true. We were made for relationship. We were structured for authentic love and human flourishing within marriage and a society founded upon family. We were created by God, in His Image, and we will never find authentic happiness or human flourishing until we embrace His loving plan.
We are living in a new missionary age. Pope Francis is reminding us for good reason that the devil is real. He is and he is our enemy. The Evil One hates Jesus Christ and hates all who bear His name and continue His redemptive mission by living their lives in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
The Christian Way of Life transformed Christianity from being a small sect into becoming the major dominating faith of the age. It transformed the world of the First Millennium and the Second. It can and it will do the same in the Third Millennium.
We must not forget that we have an adversary in the devil. Thank God we have a courageous Pope who continues to remind us of that fact. Now, let’s take it to heart and engage in spiritual warfare.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.