If you ask a selection of Catholics whether or not they believe in the existence of Satan as a literal and real figure, I suspect most of them would initially look at you as though you were mad; and most would then say they did not.
But if you were to ask Pope Francis the same question, you would receive a very different answer.
In the past, the Holy Father has explicitly mentioned the Devil on a variety of different occasions. Many times, he has been known to refer to a particular thing – such as domestic abuse – as being “satanic” in nature. And he has described certain activities – such as engendering hostility toward the Church – as being “the work of the Devil”.
But there are other times when he has referred very clearly indeed to the Devil as being real – not simply as an aspect or description of some other thing, but a reality in his own right.
Of course, this should come as no surprise to any Catholic, since the Gospel speaks of the Devil. Saint Matthew goes so far as to describe the encounter of Jesus with Satan in the desert, where He is tempted. The Evangelist relates to us the conversation which takes place between the Lord and the fallen one.
I watched Satan fall like lightning from Heaven
Satan is mentioned elsewhere, in the Gospel of Saint Luke, when the Seventy Two disciples return to the Lord after He has sent them out to preach the Kingdom. They tell Him that “even the demons are subject to us because of Your Name” (Luke 10:17). He responds by telling them that He “watched Satan fall like lightning from Heaven”.
In numerous other texts of the New Testament, demons and devils are mentioned as being ‘cast out’ of this or that person. Now, while you might imagine this is a flowery way of describing someone being cured of some illness, you may wish to read the texts again – the writers are very clear indeed in differentiating between curing an illness and deliverance from a demon; these are two entirely separate things as far as the authors are describing them.
Saint Paul, too, speaks of the evil one and his demons. Writing in the fourth chapter of his first letter to Timothy, we find this – “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the Faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”. And so the potential power of these spirits to do us harm is noted here – they can lead us away from the Faith, much as they tried to do with the Lord in the desert.
So it should not really be such a great surprise that our Holy Father not only speaks of the Devil, but believes firmly in his existence as a spiritual entity. He spoke on this most recently only yesterday, commenting about the widespread use of pornography and adding that “the Devil enters from there”.
Francis is not the first recent Pope to comment in this way.
In the summer of 1972, Pope Paul VI famously said –
“through some crack, the smoke of Satan has entered the Church of God. There is doubt, uncertainty, problems, unrest, dissatisfaction, confrontation.”
Seeming to be a comment on issues affecting the Church globally, his comment was placed in a wider context only years later, when his full letter was published in a book.
But regardless of this, the Pope had commented on the Devil – and went on to note a number of the features with which the demon is most closely associated.
Similarly, Pope John Paul II was not unfamiliar with the subject. In fact, in August 1986, the Holy Father spoke at length (in Italian) about Satan in a General Audience –
“Satan wishes to destroy life lived in accordance with the truth.. the supernatural life of grace and love.. This fallen Angel has acquired dominion over man to a certain extent. This is the doctrine that has been constantly professed and proclaimed by the Church.. In the Bible, Satan is called ‘the prince of this world’.. and even the ‘god of this world’.. To conclude, we must add that the impressive words of the Apostle John – ‘the whole world lies under the power of the evil one – allude to the presence of Satan in the history of humanity, a presence which becomes all the more acute when man and society depart from God.”
Looking around the world today, it is easy to see much of what would once, in times past, have been associated explicitly with the actions of Satan – a direct connection would have been made between the two.
Looking a little further, we might find that in our times, the embrace of Satan – often as a deity in his own right – is much more widespread that we might at first imagine.
While there are many who proclaim to have a ‘faith’ in Satan, this is seemingly without belief in his actual existence as an entity – such persons say their devotion speaks more of a personal attitude toward self and to the world. But there are many others, too – an increasing number – who say clearly that they do indeed believe in Satan (and his demons) as a spiritual being, and one to whom they give their allegiance. I expect the reasons for such allegiance are greatly varied and as numerous as the fallen angels.
What is clear, then, is that the Church has always believed in the existence of Satan and his demons, the fallen angels; and the Church maintains this belief now, today, in our own time.
The Lord speaks of Satan as a reality, as do the Evanglists and the authors of the texts of the New Testament (and the Old). The Holy Fathers have not only maintained this belief, but have sometimes written of it and often spoken about it, even yesterday.
I wonder, then, what prevents us from believing this, too?
It is said that Satan’s greatest achievement is in convincing us that he simply does not exist. Perhaps he has succeeded in this endeavour.