VATICAN CITY – A darling of liberal Catholics and an advocate of inclusion and forgiveness, Pope Francis is hardly known for fire and brimstone.
Yet in his words and deeds, the new pope is locked in an epic battle with the oldest enemy of God and creation: the Devil.
After little more than a year atop the Throne of St. Peter, Francis’s teachings on Satan are already regarded as the most old school of any pope since at least Paul VI, whose papacy in the 1960s and 1970s fully embraced the notion of hellish forces plotting to deliver mankind unto damnation.
Largely under the radar, theologians and Vatican insiders say, Francis has not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have, but he also has 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.
Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the Devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Evil became less the wicked plan of the master of hell than the nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.
Enter the plain-talking first pope from Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region. During his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, Francis was known for stark warnings against the tempter and the father of lies. Now, his focus on the Devil is raising eyebrows even within the normally unquestioning walls of Vatican City.
Pope Francis never stops talking about the Devil; it’s constant, said one senior bishop in Vatican City who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. Had Pope Benedict done this, the media would have clobbered him.
Some progressive theologians complain that by focusing on old-school interpretations of the Devil, Francis is undermining his reputation as a leader who in so many other ways appears to be more in step with modern society than his predecessor.
He is opening the door to superstition, said Vito Mancuso, a Catholic theologian and writer.
Among the things lurking behind that door is the alleged gateway to hell guarded by the small cluster of officially anointed exorcists of the Roman Catholic church.
By most accounts, the ranks of official exorcists number between 500 and 600 in a global church of more than 1 billion Catholics, with the vast majority operating in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Last week, at the ninth and largest Vatican-sanctioned convention on exorcism, attendees gushed about the fresh recognition being afforded the field.
Almost 200 delegates from more than two dozen nations – most of them priests and nuns – talked about how Satanic cults are spreading like wildfire in the age of the Internet.
The new pope, exorcists say, has become their champion in the face of modern skeptics, many of them within the Catholic faith. Officially, those claiming to be possessed must first undergo psychiatric evaluations. But exorcists say that liberal Catholic bishops have often rejected their services even after such due diligence.
The sad truth is that there are many bishops and priests in our church who do not really believe in the Devil, said the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, the 89-year-old priest who is perhaps the closest thing the church has to a Hollywood-style exorcist. I believe Pope Francis is speaking to them. Because when you don’t believe, the Devil wins.