Recently I enjoyed leading a book discussion of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “Rejoice and Be Glad.” As the title indicates, and as Pope Francis himself often exhibits, it is an uplifting and positive document. However, there was one section that caused our discussion group to grapple with the Pope’s instruction. In Chapter 5, titled “Spiritual Combat, Vigilance and Discernment,” Pope Francis insists on the reality of the devil, the prince of evil. Pope Francis states: “It is precisely the conviction that this malign power is present in our midst that enables us to understand how evil can at times have so much destructive force.” (Para 160) And in the next paragraph states, “Hence, we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea.” (Para 161).
The Devil as an actual being seems a rather quaint idea. But the Pope warns us: “This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable. The devil does not need to possess us. He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice.” (Para 161)
Truly there is immense evil in the world, so much so that it seems inexplicable: Buddhists persecuting Muslims in Myanmar, Hindus murdering Muslims in India, Muslims attacking and killing Christians in their churches in Pakistan, a virulent resurgence of racism and xenophobia in our own country in towns and cities and on college campuses. Some of this is so awful and horrific as to beg the imagination. Can there be some logical explanation for the brutal beheadings, gruesome murders, and wholesale destruction of priceless cultural artifacts that we have seen in the Middle East perpetrated by the Islamic State and other radical groups? More and more around the world we see democratic structures attacked by and succumb to forces of strong men dictators, from Poland to the Philippines, to Nicaragua, to Turkey, not to mention Russia and China. In our own country we hear terrible stories of child abuse and the most vicious sort of rapes and attacks, that really make no sense. There seems to be some force, a strong force, working for evil, that relishes evil, that desires evil simply for the sake of evil.
And Pope Francis reminds and challenges to take this force for evil seriously. And he names it the Devil. Fortunately, we have the weapons to resist and to conquer this evil. St. Paul, long ago, told us, “Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Eph :13-17
So as St Paul encouraged his disciple Timothy, let us all take to heart St Paul’s words, “Fight the good fight of the faith: take hold of the eternal life, to which we were called and for which you made the good profession in the presence of many witnesses.” 1 Tim 6:12