When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation I was shaken. I told one of the priests who has guided me for several decades that I had expected Benedict to endure the Storm. My priest responded, “He might very well endure it – just not as pope.” After Pope Francis had settled in I enthused to the same priest that, much as I admired Benedict, Francis acted like the pope I had seen guiding us through the Storm. I was even more enthused when so many of the false prophets began to wail that Francis was an anti-pope or the anti-Christ. I always draw comfort from the wailing rants of devils. Whenever they are enraged, it means new multitudes are at the porch of redemption.
I had thought that Popes John Paul the Great and Benedict were like two chapters in the same book. I was right, but unaware that there was a third chapter. Blessed John Paul was the rehab contractor, busily tearing away all the rotted wood and replacing it with new, seasoned lumber. Study his writings and encyclicals and you will find what an astonishing genius and gift he was to the Church. Five hundred years from now we will still not have plumbed the depth of what he did. Benedict was the equivalent of a finish carpenter, putting fine detail and filigree on the massive work accomplished by John Paul. And now that the ship is entirely seaworthy, Francis has taken the captain’s cabin, ready to carry us safely through the violence of the Storm.
Pope Francis has discomfited many, even as some enemies of the faith have tried to draw false comfort from him. Some princes of the Church have taken offense as Francis directs them to live more along the teachings of the Prince of Peace than of the princes of this world. Many severe aesthetes who would use Scripture as a template from which to judge everyone else and find them wanting are shaken – and furious – to find the pope telling them that they have been found wanting. Some who love to wallow in sin, which is death, seek to translate the pope’s tender mercy towards sinners as a willingness to accommodate himself to sin. After nearly a century of pre-eminence, I should not be so surprised to find the devil having sown such an abundance of disorder and error throughout the world.
A consistent theme of Francis’ papacy so far has been the reality of the devil. He teaches emphatically that satan is not a mere psychological concept, but a real, active malevolent being, bent on destroying humanity. It is a rebuke to all who have signed on to the cult of psycho-therapy in the last century. Psycho-therapy should have been a help to humanity. Sometimes it is, but it has been perverted as a tool by the devil to convince people that he does not exist – and, for that matter, neither does evil or free will. It is one of satan’s more brilliant gambits – to convince people he does not exist, thus enabling him to hide in plain sight. Through it, he also feeds man’s vanity, persuading them that they are the titans. Whomever satan would destroy, satan first exalts, to ensure their fall is fatal.
Satan is brilliant. He knows Scripture better than all the theologians who have ever lived, combined. He knows every facet of the laws of nature with which God set the universe spinning, so he is able to dazzle, seduce and mislead the most brilliant scientists. There are three statements which, when I hear someone say them, fill me with terror for the one who believes them. The first is, “I can handle a demon.” Ah, how satan wants you to believe that, that he may lure you out from the protection of Christ’s mantle to face him solely with your own power. It is like a battle between a gnat and a rhinoceros. (Hint – you are not the rhinoceros). One who thinks he can handle a demon is about to be crushed by satan. The second is, “I can always tell the difference between promptings from God and those from satan.” So Jesus is clearly a liar when He said satan can appear as an angel of light and deceive even the elect for a time. And all the great saints who recount how they were deceived by satan for a time just can’t measure up to the magnificent glory and subtle wisdom of those who believe this?! Someone who says this is begging satan to take possession – and satan will quickly oblige if they do not rid themselves of this vanity. Finally, the one who confidently asserts that they KNOW they are all right with God and will go straight to heaven when they die terrifies me. In I Corinthians, 9:27, St. Paul makes clear with what care he works not to lose his salvation after having preached well to so many. It astonishes me that so many consider themselves holier than St. Paul. And I know that anyone who is in such a vain state as to believe they can know the state of their soul is in terrible danger of the judgment.
For all satan’s brilliance, he has an overwhelming flaw: pride. Vanity, envy and even despair are manifestations of pride. They beget malice, a blind obsession for the harm of another or oneself. Malice blinds the soul to all that is good, regardless of how “brilliant” you might be. Satan inspired men to kill Christ. He took advantage of their vanity – that they were “holy” and this Upstart must die; their envy that the people took such hope from Him while resenting them. Satan danced with glee as the crucifixion went forward, savoring the hour of his triumph. Satan was not so foolish as not to know the Eternal Son would return to eternity. The devil did not think He was destroying Christ. He knew better than that. Rather, satan is blinded by his malice to mankind. He thought surely the crucifixion would enrage God against men and that God would now share his contempt for them, blasting them all to nothingness while receiving him back in heaven with honors and acknowledgment that he had been right about men all along.
What satan did not expect was that Christ would rise again AS A MAN, cloaked with a glorified body – and that this rising would open the floodgates of heaven, allowing those lowly worms, men, to be reconciled with God once again. The most brilliant creature outside of heaven did not see that the hour of his supposed triumph was actually the hour of his definitive defeat – and that he had played an indispensable role in the victory of Christ. With his brilliance he would have seen what it was, were it not for his preening vanity and obsessive malice. But he is blinded by self-love.
Disordered pride must always lead to destruction. For vanity, the exaltation of self, always finds the evidence of its error. If finding the error does not engender humility, it must engender malice, for there is no cure for our frailty except Christ. Envy is like drinking salt water. The more you drink, the thirstier you will get. There is no end to the parching except death. The only water that brings relief is Christ – and you can only approach Him with humility. Despair is the vain belief that your faults are greater than God’s power to amend or forgive. It is a subtle form of pride, true, but ultimately the belief that you are so great that you are beyond the reach of God.
Easter has begun, Christ has won His victory and rescued those men who will accept it, and satan – that brilliant, evil fool – helped.
I have wrestled for almost a year with writing about satan. People, including many theologians, so misunderstand him and make him into a one-dimensional caricature. In doing so, they unwittingly collaborate with satan’s efforts to deceive man into believing he is not there at all. Now the hour of satan is upon us. As from Holy Thursday to the Resurrection, it is mercifully brief, but it will be all the more violent and agitated because of its brevity.
Satan does not have just a few gambits to destroy men. He custom designs a plan for each and every man, calculated to destroy you through the areas of your weakness. Over the course of this week, I will write about this vicious, loathesome spirit, that you may recognize him when he appears to you in an abundance of light and seeming love to seduce you.