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The first pope, Peter, summed up the Christian life by saying: “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith.”
The newest pope, Francis, quotes him and expands on that advice at length, in his newly released document Rejoice and Be Glad (Gaudete et Exsultate).
The subject of his “apostolic exhortation” is holiness — and if that word sounds aloof and unappealing, read the document to see just how real and attractive it can be.
And if it sounds easy, well, “The Christian life is a constant battle,” he writes. “We need strength and courage to withstand the temptations of the devil and to proclaim the Gospel.”
How to fight the devil? Pope Francis has a plan.
First: Take the devil seriously.
The devil is real, and the Bible makes no sense without him, says Francis.
“He is present in the very first pages of the Scriptures,” he writes, and the story ends “with God’s victory over the devil.”
The spiritual battle cannot “be reduced to the struggle against our human weaknesses and proclivities — be they laziness, lust, envy, jealousy or any others,” he wrote. “It is also a constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil.”
He calls for a “supernatural understanding” that sees the devil ‘s attacks as personal, not psychological — but we need not think of the devil the way Hollywood does.
Francis writes: “The devil does not need to possess us. He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice. When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities.”
Second: Arm yourself.
Action movies say “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” Francis says the same thing about our battle with the devil.
“For this spiritual combat, we can count on the powerful weapons that the Lord has given us: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation,” he says.
Only by living “in Christ” through the sacraments he gave us can we fortify ourselves.
“If we become careless, the false promises of evil will easily seduce us,” Francis warns.
Third: Maximize good deeds — your own and others.
Other weapons in your spiritual armory include “works of charity” and “missionary outreach,” he adds.
But Francis warns about prideful, self-congratulatory charity.
“Rejoice in the good of others as if it were your own, and desire that they be given precedence over you in all things,” he says, quoting St. John of the Cross. “This you should do wholeheartedly. You will thereby overcome evil with good, banish the devil, and possess a happy heart” (No. 117).
Fourth: Make friends in faith.
You can’t fight a war without a battalion, and you can’t fight a spiritual battle alone, either, says Pope Francis.
“When we live apart from others, it is very difficult to fight against concupiscence, the snares and temptations of the devil and the selfishness of the world,” Francis writes. Alone, we “easily succumb” (No. 140).
This is what churches are for: gathering together people who want to fight the same battle, together. “Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others,” he writes.
Fifth: Don’t believe Satan’s promises.
Francis notes that the Bible warns about “the wiles of the devil.”
So does Pope Francis. “I’m convinced that one must never converse with Satan,” he said in December. “If you do that, you’ll be lost. He’s more intelligent than us, and he’ll turn you upside down; he’ll make your head spin.”
In Rejoice and Be Glad he quotes the cowboy saint, Father Jose Brochero, saying, “What good is it when Lucifer promises you freedom and showers you with all his benefits, if those benefits are false, deceptive and poisonous?”
Instead, the document returns again and again to promises you can count on: God’s.
Sixth: Be willing to be humiliated.
Throughout his pontificate, Francis has warned about “spiritual corruption” which he defines here as “a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness.”
Corruption can happen to anyone, he says, and cites Solomon, David, and a person mentioned by Jesus who “freed from the devil [and] convinced that his life was now in order, ended up being possessed by seven other evil spirits.”
How to keep spiritual pride at bay? “Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations,” he writes, including “the daily humiliations of those who keep silent to save their families, who prefer to praise others rather than boast about themselves, or who choose the less welcome tasks, at times even choosing to bear an injustice so as to offer it to the Lord.”
Seventh: Love generously.
Last, Pope Francis says nothing short of total commitment will do to give your life a “counterbalance to evil.”
“Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out,” he says.
But be not afraid, he adds: “This battle is sweet, for it allows us to rejoice each time the Lord triumphs in our lives.”
Photo: Flickr, Catholic Church England and Wales
This appeared at Aleteia.