In 1972, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Paul VI delivered a sermon that startled the world. Describing the chaos then consuming the post-conciliar Church, he lamented: “From some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”
Paul’s words were a warning to all who, taken with the “spirit of Vatican II”—rather than the Council’s actual teachings—had fallen under the sway of dark spirits. But Catholic dissidents didn’t want to be criticized, much less told they might be assisting the devil. So they struck back—with sarcasm, ridicule and contempt. One of Paul’s biographers describes their reaction:
Cartoonists refurbished their stock of clichés, producing cloven hoofs, long sinuous tails, ugly contorted faces and terrifying implements of torture. For the cartoonists Paul VI was definitely not a modern man.
Neither, as we’ve come to learn, is Pope Francis—if by “modern” we mean an abandonment of the supernatural, and a flight from Christianity’s most challenging teachings. Like his venerable predecessor, Francis has made it a point to draw the world’s attention to the wiles of the devil. But whereas Paul waited nearly ten years to speak so dramatically about Satan, Francis took only a day.
Within twenty-four hours of being elected, the new pope declared: “When one does not profess Jesus Christ—I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy—‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.’” The following day, Francis continued: “Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil tempts us with every day.” In his homily for Palm Sunday, he spoke of problems which appear insurmountable: “In this moment the enemy, the devil, comes, often disguised as an angel, and slyly speaks his word to us. Do not listen to him!”
In July, Francis consecrated Vatican City State to St. Michael, the Archangel, who “defends the People of God from their enemies, and above all from the arch-enemy par excellence, the devil.” And in early October, Francis powerfully rebuked those who deny the existence of Satan, warning against relativism, deceit, and “the seduction of evil.”
Striking as his words are, they are not surprising. During his formation as a Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio adopted the intense spirituality of St. Ignatius, who always recognized the reality of spiritual warfare. In On Heaven and Earth, his 2010 book with his friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke of the devil in the starkest terms: “He is the tempter, the one that looks to destroy the work of God, he that brings us to self-sufficiency, to pride. Jesus defines him as the father of lies.”
Contending with the devil, he continued, “is precisely man’s battle on earth.” That same year, Cardinal Bergolio rose to publicly challenge Argentina’s move to redefine marriage:
At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let us not be naïve: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a “move” of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.
President Cristina Kirchner, who pushed hard for the radical legislation, responded: “Bergoglio’s position is medieval.” But truth is objective and not time-conditioned, so Bergoglio’s defense of marriage stands.
During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the devil was by no means downplayed: John Paul’s Catechism highlights his presence, and Benedict was inveighing against Satan long before he became pope, notably in the Ratzinger Report. But Francis has taken the subject to a new level. He has three very clear ideas about humanity’s struggle against Satan.
The first is that no one should ever use the devil to excuse scandal, immorality, and criminal behavior—as has sometimes happened in the Church. The faithful Christian always accepts personal responsibility, and understands that the devil can never force us to do anything against our will. He tempts, he misleads, he brings us to the point of danger, but in the final analysis, it is our choice whether to succumb to evil or not.
The second principle is never to allow our fight against Satan to end dialogue with our opponents. Back in May, Francis proclaimed, “You cannot dialogue with the prince of the world,” and his statement immediately provoked questions: How can we improve anything in a conflicted world, if we demonize our opponents and summarily end dialogue with them? But that’s not what Francis said, in context. In the very next sentence, he stressed the importance of dialogue, which is “necessary for peace.” What he meant by warning us never to dialogue with the devil is never to sacrifice ultimate truth when meeting with our opponents—not that we shouldn’t search for common ground, or try to win hearts for Christ.
The third principle is to be on constant guard against the devil, never assume we cannot sin like those we are trying to correct, and ask ourselves some pointed questions:
Do I guard myself, my heart, my feelings, my thoughts? Do I guard the treasure of grace? Do I guard the presence of the Holy Spirit in me? Or do I let go, feeling secure, believing that all is going well? But if you do not guard yourself, he who is stronger than you will come.
On all these points, says Francis, “there are no nuances. There is a battle and a battle where salvation is at play, eternal salvation.”
Those who support Francis’ exhortations should follow his lead, knowing they will meet resistance. Sin, evil, temptation, the devil, eternal judgment—these are not topics the modern world wants to discuss, or even that many Christians do. When Archbishop Chaput addressed the reality of Satan a few years ago, he called out the “many religious leaders” who were “embarrassed to talk about the devil” and spiritual warfare. Doing so invites charges of harboring irrational, superstitious, even dangerous beliefs. But the real peril is the denial of evil that began with Satan, and is still being fomented by his legions. “I believe that the devil exists,” Francis told Rabbi Skorka. “Maybe his greatest achievement in these times has been to make us believe that he does not exist.”
We need to keep driving that message home. For as Pope Francis keeps reminding us, until the Lord returns in his full triumph and glory, the smoke of Satan is here to stay.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.