A humorous cartoon on Pinterest features two horned demons clad in red, chatting casually with each other. In the background is an enormously long line of frustrated-looking people. Guided by an endless queue of velvet ropes throughout the massive, featureless room, they make their way zombielike toward a row of counters, most of which are closed. The one open window is staffed by a woman talking on the telephone, stalling the line of people waiting. One of the demons says to the other, “Don’t get me wrong. Hell is awful. But it could be so much more hellish.” Pointing to the large “DMV” sign at the front of room, he adds, “We have much to learn from them.”
In the gospel reading today, Jesus visits the synagogue in the seaside village of Capernaum. As was the custom at that time for any man conversant with the Scriptures, Jesus takes the opportunity to comment on the readings. Preaching with uncommon authority, he is heckled by a man with “an unclean spirit.”
The man exhibits several signs of demonic possession. First, he has a clear aversion to the holy. In the presence of Jesus, the grip of evil on him becomes evident. Second, he indicates that he is afflicted by more than one demon. Like angels, demons are numerous and governed by a strict hierarchy. Finally, the stricken man addresses Jesus as the “Holy One,” which was a name normally reserved for God. Since Jesus had not yet revealed his divine identity, the man exhibits an uncanny knowledge of hidden things, another common indication of the demonic.
Many Catholics today deny the existence of evil spirits, dismissing biblical references to demons as a mythical way of symbolizing illness and other human misfortune. However, the Church has always taught that demons are real spiritual beings, fallen angels, who were created by God but became evil by their own free choice (Catechism nn. 391-95).
As late Father Gabriele Amorth, the official exorcist of Rome for 27 years, points out in his book, “Satan was formerly an angel, created good, who later rebelled against God; he alienated himself from God and he constructed for himself and his followers what is called Hell.” (Vade retro, Satana! (St. Pauls Philippines: 2014), 4-5). Indeed, the word “Devil” means “one who splits up or breaks or throws away” in Greek. “Being alienated from God, Satan . . . recruits other creatures to rebel against God . . . and he will continue his destructive work until the return of Christ at the end of time” (Id. at 7-8).
While it is common to joke about or dismiss such things, it cannot be denied that the Church was established by Christ to stand against evil in the world, however one may choose to define it. Although the followers of Christ and their leaders are imperfect and often sinful, life is better when we follow Christ. As we continue our five-week message series leading up to Lent that we are calling, It’s Better In Here, we should remember that life is better inside the doors of the church because, unlike the world out there (and the DMV), it’s less hellish in here.
Father Roger Gustafson