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No pope of recent times has spoken of the devil more often, or with more assurance, than Pope Francis. To some, this is evidence of the pope's naivety. To see the devil as the personification of evil rather than a mere abstraction strikes a discordant note, but it is a dissonance we need to heed. The devil's greatest trick is to convince us he doesn't exist, or is not so bad as he is painted. No one in his right mind would exclaim, 'Evil, be thou my good!' But too many of us have got into the habit of disregarding evil or not admitting its heinousness. We have accommodated ourselves in ways Francis spelled out in his recent address on Satan still being present in the twenty-first century.
Anyone who lives in religious community, anyone who seriously tries to pray, will, sooner or later, encounter evil. The devil tries to undermine us at every turn. Prayer becomes difficult and giving ourselves to some active apostolate seems so much better, why not drop the “useless” prayer and give ourselves to something that clearly benefits others? That is the devil at work. Good people are seduced by good things. We scarcely notice we have abandoned God and weakened the community.
Satan comes in a thousand disguises. Poisonous gossip doesn't usually appear as such. It masquerades as “concern” or “moral outrage”, but, bit by bit, it grows and becomes destructive. It affects not only the gossiper but also the hearer. As Francis says, its spreads like an infection.
Our problem is we have become complacent. Because we tend not to think of the devil in personal terms, we assume evil cannot really hurt us. We want a religion of Easter without the struggles of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
But although the victory is won in Christ, we have to appropriate it for ourselves. As the Pope remarked in October, “There is no shadow of a doubt, a battle exists, a battle in which the eternal salvation of us all is at stake.”
The best weapons to use against the devil are those we have been using during Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer tackles the devil head on by affirming that God is our goal. Unfortunately, the more we try to pray, the more we can expect Satan to try to hinder us. Fasting asserts that worldliness, having more, is not the value by which we choose to live. That goes clean contrary to the devil's attempt to make us thorough-going materialists. As for almsgiving, loving others is precisely what the devil least wants to see in us.
Last July, at an event scarcely noticed by the press, Pope Francis joined with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in dedicating a statue in the Vatican. Significantly, his prayer included the words, “In consecrating the Vatican City State to St Michael the Archangel, let us ask him to defend us from the Evil One and cast him out.” That is a prayer we can all make our own.
Dame Catherine Wybourne, prioress of Howton Grove Priory, Hereford