Satan and the Saint | The Feast Day of St. John Vianney | August 4th | Carl E. Olson
Imagine a saint – a priest – so dedicated to God that he often went days without eating, and when he did eat, it was a boiled potato or a piece of hard bread.
Although many considered him unfit for the priesthood, he revived the crushed faith of an impoverished village and often spent eighteen hours a day hearing confessions, often sleeping only an hour or two each night.
As the reputation of this holy man of God spread, pilgrims began to seek him out, sometimes waiting days for him to hear their confession, heal their illnesses, and speak directly to their deepest needs. But not everyone was so pleased. This priest began to be attacked, sometimes physically and, at other times, emotionally and psychologically. He was verbally mocked, scorned, and abused. At night he was subjected to loud and violent noises for hours on end. He was pulled from bed in the middle of the night and, on one occasion, his bed was set on fire.
Despite this constant abuse, the priest never called the police or requested security. It wouldn’t have mattered, for the abuse and taunts did not come from another human, but from Satan. The priest, of course, was St. John Vianney (1786-1859), the Curé of Ars, whose feast is celebrated August 4.
Although rightly renowned for his holiness, asceticism, and spiritual insight, the Curé of Ars was also remarkable for his courage and steadiness in the face of the Devil. For some thirty-five years (1824-1858) Satan assaulted the Saint in a nearly endless number of ways, seeking to break the will and resolve of the great man of God: making harrowing noises, singing in a wicked voice, meowing like a cat, or shouting, "Vianney! Vianney! Potato eater!"
Living being or scary symbol?
Many people today would understood St. John Vianney's struggles with Satan to simply be the result of psychological problems that weren’t understood or properly identified in his day. They would explain that in a less scientific age people often attributed behaviors they didn't understand to the work of the devil, but now we can treat many such illnesses with proper medication and therapy. Behavior that once was deemed demonic or caused by spiritual oppression can be explained by science and psychology, as newspapers, magazines, and television programs instruct us on a regular basis.
While it’s not surprising that non-Christians or non-religious people might make such assessments, there’s evidence that more and more Christians are rejecting the ancient belief that Satan is a real, living being.
In his 1991 book, What Americans Believe (Regal Books; page 26), Evangelical pollster George Barna reported that a survey of 1005 Americans found that 60% of respondents, regardless of religious affiliation, believed that Satan was "only a symbol of evil," while 35% believed he is "a living being." Just over half of the respondents who described themselves as "born again Christians" believed Satan is a living being, while only 26% of Catholics agreed, with almost 7 out of10 Catholics saying Satan is only a symbol of evil.
In December 1993, Time magazine featured a story and an opinion poll on angels. The poll revealed that 69% of respondents believed in the existence of angels, but only 49% believed in the existence of fallen "angels or devils." Two years later, in 1995, another Barna survey revealed that about 58% of American adults believed that Satan is "not a living being but is a symbol of evil."
And, finally, an October 2002 study by the Barna Group ("Americans Draw Theological Beliefs From Diverse Points of View") found that 59% of Americans reject the existence of Satan, instead believing he is merely a symbol of evil. The study stated: "Catholics are much more likely than Protestants to hold this view – 75% compared to 55% – although a majority of both groups concur that Satan is symbolic." The study also noted that the rejection of Satan’s existence apparently conflicted with the fact that 54% of respondents believed that "a human being can be under the control or the influence of spiritual forces such as demons." The religious group with the highest percentage (59%) of members who believe that Satan is a living entity was Mormon. The group with the lowest percentage, at 17%, was Catholic.
For some people, the path from denying Satan is a living being to denying his existence in any form – even an impersonal and abstract one – is a short one. As many have noted, this is probably how Satan would prefer it. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is credited with the saying that "the Devil's cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist." In his book, The Eternal Galilean, Archbishop Fulton Sheen warned readers: "Do not mock the Gospels and say there is no Satan. Evil is too real in the world to say that. Do not say the idea of Satan is dead and gone. Satan never gains so many cohorts as when, in his shrewdness, he spreads the rumor that he is long since dead."
Even though there are priests, catechists, and Catholic educators who may never speak of Satan, and who – either directly or indirectly – apparently deny his existence, Satan is not dead, nor has the Church demoted him to a vague, impersonal force. While a growing number of people, including an alarming number of Catholics, are being convinced (or have convinced themselves) that the Devil is just a figment of primitive imaginations, the Church’s teachings today about him are just as robust and clear as ever.
For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains numerous references to Satan, or the Devil, explaining that he was originally a good angel who rebelled against God (CCC 391), he is a creature of pure spirit who is powerful but not infinite (CCC 395), and that his goal is to destroy man by turning him against God (CCC 414). Especially striking is the Catechism’s explanation that the petition "Deliver us from evil" in the Our Father does not refer to evil as "an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. The devil (dia-bolos) is the one who ‘throws himself across’ God's plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ" (CCC 2851). So even those who deny the personal, creaturely nature of Satan unwittingly acknowledge it whenever they recite the Our Father.
The names and the fall of Satan
In a general audience titled "Confronting the Devil’s power," (November 15, 1972) Pope Paul VI said that it is a departure from "biblical Church teaching to refuse to aknowledge the Devil's existence; to regard him as a self-sustaining principle who, unlike other creatures, does not owe his origin to God; or to explain the Devil as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes." Here are expressed three major truths about Satan, all of them found in the Bible: the Devil exists, he is a creature who was created by God, and he is very real.
The name Satan appears numerous times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word satan refers to an adversary, or to someone who plots opposition to another. It is used several times in the Old Testament to describe the work of both human and heavenly beings sent to stop, or oppose, the actions of a wrongdoer and to act as an agent of judgment on behalf of God. Eventually, in the decades immediately prior to the time of Christ, the word began to be used as a proper name – Satan – for a heavenly creature who is in complete opposition to God and who seeks to ruin His work. In Jewish apocryphal writings he is understood to be the prince of evil spirits whose expulsion from heaven was due to his refusal to recognize man as the image of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27).
Throughout the New Testament he is referred to by many other names, including Beelzebul (Mk 3:22; Matt 10:25; 12: 24), Belial/Beliar (2 Cor 6:15), the evil one (Matt 13:19; Jn 17:15; 1 Jn 5:18, 19), the enemy (Matt 13:25, 28, 29; Lk 10:19), the ruler of the demons (Mk 3:22), the ruler of this world (Jn 12:31; 14:30), the great dragon (Rev 12:9), the serpent, or serpent of old (2 Cor 11:3; Rev 12:9, 14, 14; 20:2), and the tempter (Matt 4:3; 1 Thess 3:5). And, of course, he is called "the Devil" (Matt 4:1; 25:41; Lk 4:2; Jn 13:2; Acts 10:38), which derives from the Greek word diabolos (Latin, diabolus), which means "slanderer" or "accuser."
Satan, like all creatures, was created by God – and created naturally good. He was an angel, a being of pure spirit created for the glory of God and do the Creator’s work. But something went horribly wrong with Satan and some of the other angels. Possessing free will, they chose to rebel against their Maker. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) stated that although they were created "good according to their nature" by God, they fell from heaven because "they made themselves evil by their own doing." As the Catechism notes, this action, God’s allowance of it, and the resulting evil are a "great mystery" (CCC 395). Quoting St. John Damascene, the Catechism also explains that this sin of Satan and his angels is unforgivable, having a permanent and irrevocable character (CCC 393).
This mysterious, cosmic event is referred to in passing in 2 Peter, which mentions the angels who had sinned (v. 4; cf. Matt 25:41; Job 4:18) and John’s first epistle, which states that "the devil has sinned from the beginning" (1 Jn 3:8). The twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation describes the tail of "the great red dragon" sweeping away "a third of the stars of heaven" (vs. 3-4), commonly understood to refer to the fall of Satan and his angels. The same chapter also describes a war in heaven between those fallen beings and the archangel Michael and his angels:
That scene from the final book of the Bible serves as a bookend of sorts with the first mention of "the serpent" in Genesis 3 and the well-known story of the temptation in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent Fall.
The serpent, described as the most cunning of the animals (Gen 3:1) tempts Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which she eventually does. Some biblical scholars doubt the author of Genesis had Satan in mind when he wrote about the serpent. However, in the ancient Near East the serpent was often believed to be a cosmic figure who is identified with a monster of chaos and who represents the powers of evil and darkness. In later Jewish thought the serpent of Genesis 3 became identified with Satan, either as a symbol of Satan or as his mouthpiece (cf. Wisdom 2:24).
That identification is also explicit in the New Testament, especially in Revelation 12, which identifies the dragon as "the ancient serpent," the Devil, and Satan. Jesus described the devil as being "a murderer from the beginning" and "a liar, and the father of lies" (Jn 8:44) and St. Paul writes of the serpent who "deceived Eve by his cunning" (2 Cor 11:3). Likewise, the Catechism explains that behind the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden "lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil’" (CCC 391).
The witness of the New Testament
If ever there was a person who believed in the existence of Satan, it was Jesus. It is easy to forget, especially since it isn’t mentioned often these days, that Jesus understood that Satan is the "ruler of this world" (Jn 12:31), a murderer, a liar, and the father of lies (Jn 8:44). In fact, Jesus plainly stated that a key aspect of the salvation He offered the world involved the destruction of Satan’s power in the world:
Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show by what death he was to die. (Jn 12:31-33; cf. Jn 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8)
To that end, Jesus often cured people suffering from demonic possession (Matt 9:33; 17:18; Mk 7:26-30; Lk 4:33-35; Lk 9:38-42), demonstrating His power over evil and the "prince of demons" (Matt 9:34; 12:24; cf. Eph 2:2). And while Satan is not the focus of the Gospel, there were important moments in Jesus’ ministry when He either spoke of Satan or to Satan.
The Catechism points out that the Evil One, the ruler of this world, has "mendaciously attributed to himself the three titles of kingship, power, and glory" (CCC 2855). Satan wants to rule all things, to have power everywhere and over everything, and steal and destroy the glory of all that exists.
This is dramatically shown in Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13; CCC 540), which inaugurated Jesus’ public ministry. Satan tempted Jesus to show His power by turning stones into bread. He tempted Jesus to reveal His heavenly glory by throwing Himself from the top of the Temple and having angels carry Him to safety. And the Evil One offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He will fall down and worship him. However, Jesus knew that His kingdom could only be established through suffering and death. He understood that true power comes through love and sacrifice, not fear and arrogance. And He knew that His glorified body would result from rising from the grave, not by avoiding it. These temptations echo the temptations that Adam and the people of Israel underwent. But while they failed to resist the work of Satan, Jesus is victorious over the tempter (CCC 538-540).
Jesus’ rejection of Satan’s temptations showed the heart of the Messiah who was intent on establishing His Kingdom. But Jesus’ also knew that His Church and the Kingdom would come under severe attack from Satan and his angels. He told St. Peter that the powers of hell would seek to destroy the Church but would not prevail (Matt 16:18). He also told the chief apostle, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat" (Lk 22:31), indicating some of the hardships the apostles would have to endure. While St. Peter denies Jesus, he repents of his sin; Judas, on the other hand, is seduced by Satan and betrays Jesus (Jn 13:2, 27).
The apostles also recognized the reality and power of Satan – and of the Savior’s victory over him. St. Paul mentions Satan in several of his epistles, often in the context of temptation (1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11) and spiritual conflict (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 12:7; Eph 4:27; 6:11; 1 Thess 2:18). He draws a careful distinction between Satan’s ability to tempt and man’s free will to reject or accept the temptation. In other words, the apostle does not confuse Satan and sin. Satan wants us to sin, but we choose sin on our own, using our free will. St. James makes the same point when he writes, "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4:7). Vivid descriptions of Satan include "angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14), a "roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Pet 5:8), and "the great red dragon" with seven heads and ten horns (Rev 12:3-17).
Finally, the Bible says a few words about the fate awaiting Satan. Just before His arrest, Jesus tells his disciples that the Devil and his angels are destined for "eternal fire" that has been prepared for them (Matt 25:41). And at the end of time, after being allowed to test the faithful for a time (Rev 20:7), Satan will be "thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Rev 20:10; cf. CCC 677).
The work of Satan today
In 1972 Evangelical author Hal Lindsey wrote a book titled Satan Is Alive and Well On Planet Earth. It was full of descriptions of occult activities, bizarre behavior, debauchery, and paranormal activity, all intended to convince readers that Satan is even more active and successful than ever before. On one hand, such a book helps people to recognize that Satan is alive, he is active, and he does seek to destroy lives in a multitude of ways. On the other hand, such sensationalism can lead to an imbalanced view of Satan, even to a dangerous preoccupation.
There are much better guides for Christians looking to learn more about Satan without losing perspective. One such work is "Christian Faith and Demonology," (June 26, 1975) found in Vatican II: More Post Conciliar Documents (Vatican Collection, Volume 2), edited by Austin Flannery, O.P. (The Liturgical Press, 1982). It provides a helpful list of truths to consider when it comes to the reality and work of Satan in the world today. They include:
• Satan and demons do exist, they are real, and they are created beings. This is the clear and consistent teaching of the Church and to deny it is to actually call into question the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and his consciousness and understanding of Satan, evil, and sin. Be humble in the face of the mystery of evil and pursue a life of holiness, including the rejection of Satan and all of his ways, by God’s grace.
• Man is responsible for the evil he commits. The Church does not allow us to say, "The devil made me do it!" Man has free will and liberty; he is also able to call upon God, who is far more powerful than Satan can ever dream of being.
• Have a critical and prudent attitude about claims of demonic possession. Demonic activity is real and there are people who suffer from demonic infestion and even possession. But don’t be taken in by sensational reports that might be inaccurate or poorly communicated. Discernment comes from knowing what the Church teaches about demonic activity and from careful investigation of claims.
• Modern man is often naïve about the supernatural. He can also be incredibly arrogant in his denial of things that cannot be explained by science or reason alone. Again, humility is essential. Let Scripture and the teachings of the Church be your guide.
• Never underestimate the importance of faith. Satan desires to destroy man and he is deadly serious in his ceaseless quest to do so. Through faith in God, we can resist Satan. It’s true that he can tempt us and that he looks for opportunities to cause us to sin. But though he can tempt us, Satan cannot force us to sin. And by faith we can have assurance about his end and the triumph that God grants over him.
• Evil is a mystery. The culture often doubts evil and acts as though evil, if it does exist, is a vague, impersonal force. Yet the culture is also fascinated by evil, as the success of horror films, literature about Satan and demonic possession, and endless newscasts about evil acts (kidnappings, murders, violent crime, etc.) indicates. We must work to show that the mystery of evil should not attract us, but repulse us. The challenge is to show that the Cross is about true life and victory, while acts of evil are indicative of death and defeat.
Resist the Devil!
It is said that the Devil told St. John Vianney, "If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom would be ruined." The Saint, for his part, developed a remarkable sense of humor about the supernatural assaults, saying, "Oh! the grappin" – his nickname for the Devil – "and myself? We are almost chums."
It's not likely that we'll ever have to struggle with Satan the way St. John Vianney did, but we should be familiar with who he is and what he does – and why he must be resisted. That begins with acknowledging that he exists and that he wants to destroy us. It means knowing that although he is powerful, Satan is limited and he is already defeated (CCC 2852, 2864). Imagine a person so dedicated to God that he becomes likes St. John Vianney. That saint could be you.
(This article was originally published in a slightly different form in the July 31, 2005 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.)