Pope Francis is uncategorisable. That is probably his greatest strength. One moment he is saying things that have people wondering if maybe he is a ‘liberal’, but the next he is displaying a very traditional type of piety, a totally unaffected devotion to the Virgin Mary for example.
On the one hand when pressed about Church teachings on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and so on, he says “I am a son of the Church”, but moments later he says we mustn’t be “obsessed” about these things.
He tells reporters that on the issue of women priests, “the door is closed”, and then says “if a gay person is seeking God, who am I to judge?”
He shows no particular concern about liturgical niceties but then he praises the new translation of the Mass into English, a translation that has infuriated many on the ‘progressive’ side of the Church.
I would say from now until the end of his pontificate Pope Francis will continue in this vein. We will never be quite sure what is going to come next and we had better get used to it.
However, there has been one constant and insistent theme that he has spoken about again and again since being becoming Pope and that is the power and influence of the Devil.
These days if the Devil is referred to at all, he is referred to as a metaphor and not as a being that really exists. It is considered gauche and unsophisticated at best to believe in the Devil as a person. Speak of him in this way and you are guaranteed to be mocked and derided.
And yet Pope Francis speaks of the Devil all the time, and he’s getting away with it. No-one is laughing at him, no-one is mocking him.
For example, at his daily Mass on October 11, Pope Francis delivered his homily on Luke 11: 15-26 in which Jesus has cast out a demon from a possessed man.
He warned those present: “We must always be on guard against deceit, against the seduction of evil.”
Was he referring to ‘evil’ in a metaphorical sense? He made clear that the answer to this is ‘no’. He was referring to evil in a very real sense and to the Devil in a personal sense.
The Pope chided those, including priests, who try to explain away demonic possession as a form of mental illness.
He said often in history there have been those who wish to “diminish the power of the Lord” by offering naturalistic, non-miraculous explanations for Jesus’ miraculous works, urging that this is a temptation which has “reached our present day.”
“There are some priests who, when they read this Gospel passage, this and others, say: ‘But, Jesus healed a person with a mental illness.’
“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. 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.”
That could hardly be clearer. The Pope believes in the Devil as something real and personal and not as a mere rhetorical flourish. He believes that the Church and every human being is involved in their own fight with the Devil.
Later in his homily he gives advice on how to win this fight. He says we must learn to “discern” the presence of evil in our lives and that we must learn to “follow the victory of Jesus” all the way, and not just “halfway”.
“Either you are with me, says the Lord, or you are against me,” he said.
If we are with Jesus we will be saved, if not we will be with the Devil.
Again, Francis is crystal clear: “On this point, there are no nuances. There is a battle and a battle where salvation is at play, eternal salvation; eternal salvation.”
Again, how often do we hear priests today talk like this?
The Pope advised his congregation, and therefore us also, “If you do not guard yourself, he who is stronger than you will come. But if someone stronger comes and overcomes, he takes away the weapons in which one trusted, and he shall divide the spoils.”
He then gives three criteria that he uses himself when fighting the Devil. “Vigilance…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.”
We can see here again, by the way, Pope Francis speaking off-the-cuff. This has led the Vatican’s spokesman, Fr Lombardi, to tell journalists not to expect total precision all the time from the Pope.
Pope Francis is much less a man of the written word than Pope Benedict. He speaks more to the heart than the head.
But when speaking of the Devil and salvation, he leaves his listeners in no doubt; the Devil is real, and our salvation is imperilled if we do not stay close to Jesus and learn how to fight the Devil.
Pope Francis really is a miracle worker. Who else could get away with speaking about the Devil in this way and not be laughed out of court?
Priests and bishops ought to take advantage and follow the Pope’s lead. If they want to protect themselves against being laughed at, they need only quote Francis. Let’s see if they do.