Doing War With The Devil

Reporting on a recent Vatican-sanctioned convention on exorcism, Anthony Faiola finds that Pope Francis’s “teachings on Satan are already regarded as the most old school of any pope since at least Paul VI”:

Largely under the radar, theologians and Vatican insiders say, Francis has not only dwelled farThe Temptation of Christ Ary Scheffer, 1854 more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have, but also sought to rekindle the Devil’s image as a supernatural entity with the forces­ of evil at his beck and call.

Last year, for instance, Francis laid hands on a man in a wheelchair who claimed to be possessed by demons, in what many saw as an impromptu act of cleansing. A few months later, he praised a group long viewed by some as the crazy uncles of the Roman Catholic Church — the International Association of Exorcists — for “helping people who suffer and are in need of liberation.”

“ ‘But Father, how old-fashioned you are to speak about the Devil in the 21st century,’ ” Francis, quoting those who have noted his frequent mentions of the Devil, said last month while presiding over Mass at the Vatican’s chapel in St. Martha’s House. He warned those gathered on that chilly morning to be vigilant and not be fooled by the hidden face of Satan in the modern world. “Look out because the Devil is present,” he said.

As part of his research, Faiola was given permission to witness an exorcism. In an interview, he describes what he saw:

When we walked into the room, the priest was consoling [the woman undergoing exorcism] in the corner of this converted kitchen where all sorts of images of Mary and Jesus Christ were strung up. I didn’t get the feeling that the woman was uneasy because of our presence there. There were a couple of other observers in the room who were somehow associated with the priest and three helpers with him that day. It’s a bit surreal: At one moment he’s chanting in Latin, and the helpers are saying rounds of Ave Maria, so you’ve got an odd vocalization happening in the room.

The woman was quiet for five minutes before there were any signs of metamorphosis. Then she started grunting, burping, coughing up phlegm, and her characteristics became more what you would expect in a movie. He started making the sign of a cross, and she was physically repelled from his touch. She was obviously made uncomfortable by any religious gestures. That’s when the drama really escalated: The priest asked, “What is your name?” calling the demons out. Making it answer questions is supposed to be a sign of the devil’s submission to the priest’s authority. He got the name Asmodeus. In the world of exorcism, there is only one Satan but many lesser demons.

The priest asks several really arcane questions. His voice starts escalating, his gestures become more dramatic and reach some sort of a climax. She looked like she was ready to vomit. Gradually she regressed and came out of her trancelike state. The whole thing took about 40 minutes.

Sophia Deboick puts Francis’s comments – and the resurgent interest in exorcisms – in context:

In recent decades, the church has been surprisingly vocal on the issue. In 1975, the former Roman Inquisition published a study called Christian Faith and Demonology, with the aim of making the reality of the devil clear. Three years earlier, Pope Paul VI – surely a man of the modern age, given his 1968 encyclical prompted by the contraceptive pill and the miniskirt – said evil “is a living spiritual being, perverted and corrupting” and certainly not “a conceptual and imaginary personification of the unknown causes of our ills”. Just last Tuesday, Francis himself put great emphasis on the role of the devil when speaking of the protomartyr Saint Stephen, saying that the “struggle between God and the devil” was apparent in the persecution of the church’s people. For the hierarchy, the devil is not to be forgotten nor softened into a metaphor. … The devil continues to be as useful for the modern church as he has been in the past, when he bolstered the case for the burning of heretics. The concept now provides a dramatic way to underscore the dangers of a godless society.

(Image: Ary Scheffer’s The Temptation of Christ, 1854, via Wikimedia Commons)