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Awareness of the Evil One is the first step in fighting him

By Susan Gately - 06 May, 2018

Strong Ignatian influence in Pope Francis’ words about the devil in recent exhortation.

Fr Leon Ó Giolláin SJ

The first step in protecting ourselves against the devil is to be aware and acknowledge that he exists, says an Irish Jesuit priest. Fr Leon Ó Giolláin SJ, chaplain at UCD, was commenting on Part 5 of Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation on holiness, Rejoice and Be Glad, which deals with spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment.

In the exhortation Pope Francis speaks at some length about the battle to be waged, not just against “the world and a worldly mentality”, but also “against the devil, the prince of evil”.

He states: “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable. The devil does not need to possess us. He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice.”

Unpacking the Pope’s words, Fr Ó Giolláin, who trained at the Institute of Psychology in Rome, refers to St Ignatius.  “Ignatius in the rules on the discernment of spirits, will say that the enemy of our human nature, which is his definition of what Satan is, is trying to destroy us and undermine us, take away our peace – that force is at work.

“Ignatius would say that the devil likes to work under cover of darkness, hidden away. So I would say awareness is really key and that is what the Pope is trying to do – to say, ‘Hey, don’t be naïve. This force is at work in the world and we can all get caught in it.’”

At paragraph 165, Pope Francis writes that “Spiritual corruption is worse than the fall of a sinner, for it is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14).”

Explaining this, Fr Ó Giolláin told CatholicIreland that when a person falls or sins, and they recognise it, “they are in a far better position than a person who is in that blind space. It can lead to a whole lot of good, to humility, and that is a far better place to be than a person who is smug, who believes they’re in the right, who is blind to the truth about themselves, and that is the ‘angel of light’ – they are under a bad influence but they don’t even know it – so that is worse.”

According to Pope Francis, a person can know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil through the gift of spiritual discernment – “a gift we must implore”.

Pope Francis writes: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good” (167). While spiritual discernment does not exclude psychological or moral insights drawn from the human sciences, the Pope says it “transcends them”.

Fr Ó Giolláin agrees that it is vital to pray for the gift of discernment and “also to be prayerful people so that you put yourself in the presence of God, you let the sun in, and then you’ll grow in the sensitivity to what is really good and not good in your life.” If we shut Him out or shut out that influence from God, then we are more susceptible to error and to the influence of a bad spirit and that worldly spirit of corruption because we won’t even see it, he continued.

Illustrating the difference between spiritual discernment and psychological discernment, Fr Ó Giolláin takes the example of a person suffering from depression, a psychological state, which can be caused by many circumstances such as bereavement. By contrast, desolation is a spiritual state which is “always in the context of your relationship with God. It is the absence or diminution of faith, hope and love”. In his exhortation, Pope Francis warned against falling into “defeatism”.

“It’s a spiritual thing,” said Fr Ó Giolláin. St Ignatius said that one reason we fall into “desolation” is that we are “negligent in our spiritual practices. We cut off that link with the transcendent.”

At other times the “desolation” could be a trial from God (like the dark night of the soul), in which case “we become stronger in our trust in God in our times of difficulty and trial so that in a way he allows it for a greater good”.

Fr Ó Giolláin said depression would become obvious to the people around the depressed person, but with “desolation” the person could continue with the duties of their life and it would not be obvious to others.

Pope Francis said that for spiritual combat against the Evil one, we should count on the “weapons” of prayer, the sacraments, Eucharistic Adoration, works of charity, community life and missionary outreach. The Irish Jesuit agrees: “Prayer opens the window out to the transcendent, it makes a huge difference.”

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