Some years ago, there was a woman in Mexico who supposedly possessed great spiritual powers, including the gift of healing; people from throughout the country were going to her for help, and afterwards singing her praises. This was brought to the attention of the local archbishop, a very holy man. Something didn’t quite feel right about the situation, so he sent a priest to investigate. This priest, after spending time with the woman and observing her so-called healings, reported back to the archbishop, telling him that his suspicions were correct: the woman was not of God, and the alleged miracles were therefore diabolical in nature. The archbishop concluded that the woman was in fact demonically possessed, and authorized the priest to perform an exorcism. However, the exorcism failed—for at the decisive moment, when the devil was forced to reveal his presence, the priest made a terrible mistake: he listened to the evil spirit, who told the priest that he had no moral authority to cast him out, since he himself had been with the woman as she performed her false miracles, and so was her accomplice—thus making himself spiritually contaminated. This, of course, was nonsense; the priest was there under obedience, and merely for the purpose of investigating and observing. Rather than ignoring the devil’s words and continuing with the exorcism, however, the priest made the error of attempting to argue with him, and soon his mind was so guilt-ridden and confused that he was unable to proceed. (After all, the devil is the father of lies, and thus an expert when it comes to using deceptive arguments.) The archbishop was forced to appoint another priest, who successfully completed the exorcism; the first priest, however, was so shaken by the experience that he suffered a breakdown, and from that time on had great difficulty exercising any type of spiritual leadership. This true story has a moral for us: whenever we encounter, or attempt to overcome, evil on our own terms, the results can be spiritually disastrous. Jesus has conquered Satan and the kingdom of darkness, and He wants us to share in that victory—but the only way we’ll be successful in our own struggles against sin and temptation is by remaining firmly rooted in Him.
Moses was one of the greatest figures in Old Testament history, and shortly before his death—as the Book of Deuteronomy (18:15-20) relates—he foretold that at some future point, the Lord God would raise up another great leader, one deserving the utmost attention and respect. It was believed this future prophet would announce, and even usher in, the Kingdom of God. We know, of course, that this prophecy applies only to Jesus, and we see in the Gospel of Mark (1:21-28) that very early in His public ministry, Our Lord in effect showed His credentials by demonstrating His power over evil. In exorcising the possessed man, Jesus did not argue with the evil spirit, ask idle questions out of curiosity, answer the devil’s question, or waste time by doing anything like that; He simply gave an order that the devil had no choice but to obey immediately. As Our Lord’s example shows, when it comes to confronting evil, there is no room for compromise; only by being completely committed to God can we confidently hope to be part of His Kingdom.
I remember reading a novel some years back—I don’t recall the name—in which the devil almost succeeded in spiritually enslaving a pope and triumphing over the Church. A possessed person was the bait; Satan arranged for the pope to be separated from his advisors and assistants, and left alone with the possessed man. Naturally, the pope attempted an exorcism, using his authority and prestige as head of the Church, but in this case the devil’s power was too great—and the premise of the story was that if and when the exorcism failed, the pope himself would become possessed by evil. It seemed the devil was going to triumph over the Church, but at the decisive moment, the pope set aside his adult knowledge and authority and turned to the simple, child-like faith he had learned at his mother’s knee; this humble vulnerability and simple trust in Jesus shattered the devil’s pride, successfully accomplished the exorcism, and prevented a spiritual disaster.
This story is completely fictional, of course, and that situation could never occur—but the story does make a vital point: the more we rely upon ourselves in spiritual matters, the greater the danger we’re in; only when we trust completely in Jesus are we truly secure. This is important to remember, for the simple reason that we do face grave threats from the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world in which we live is spiritually corrupt and schizophrenic; our culture is constantly trying to get us to abandon or at least tone down our moral and religious values, ignore our spiritual duties, and go along with the crowd. The flesh—meaning our own human weakness—constantly tempts us to indulge ourselves, giving our physical desires and cravings a higher priority than our spiritual growth and religious duties. The devil, of course, is conducting ongoing spiritual warfare against the Church as a whole, and against each one of us personally—and he delights in deceiving us, in appealing to our pride, and in tempting us to take our eyes off Christ; he wants us to compromise with the world, to become comfortable with our faults and sins, and to let ourselves be lured into his web of evil, little by little. If we allow this to happen, if we become smug and complacent in our faith, and if we fail to place our relationship with Jesus at the center of our lives, our souls are in grave peril.
St. Paul (1 Cor 7:32-35) tells us, “I should like you to be free of anxieties.” In terms of spiritual warfare, this is possible for us; we don’t need to worry very much about the devil—if we’re taking certain precautions. First of all, we should have some basic understanding of spiritual warfare, and an awareness of our own areas of spiritual weakness; that way it will be easier to recognize and resist satan’s temptations. Secondly, we should ignore anyone who tries to tell us, “The devil is a myth; there’s no hell—the Church no longer teaches those things.” These ideas are false, and we must not let ourselves be deceived or contaminated by them. Thirdly, when confronted by temptations, we mustn’t attempt to argue or analyze our way out of them; instead, we, following the example of Our Lord, should simply reject them immediately, calling upon Jesus, Mary, and the saints to help us. Fourthly, we must always remain humble in everything we do and with everyone we encounter, for humility makes it literally impossible for the devil to obtain any hold over us. Lastly, we must form the habit of constantly praying for God’s guidance and always desiring His will more than our own; this will ensure we’re traveling the proper path. As the Gospel shows, Jesus has absolute authority over all evil—and if we trust completely in Him, we truly have nothing to fear.