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Father Raniero Cantalamessa on Unclean Spirits

Comments on This Sunday’s Readings

ROME, JAN. 27, 2006 ( Here is a translation of a commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Pontifical Household, on this Sunday’s liturgical readings.

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Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
(Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28)

The Unclean Spirit Came Out of Him

“Then a man with an unclean spirit cried out: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ Jesus then rebuked him saying: ‘Be silent and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.” What to think of this episode narrated in this Sunday’s Gospel and of many other similar incidents present in the Gospel? Do “unclean spirits” still exist? Does the devil exist?

When we speak of belief in the devil, we must distinguish two levels: the level of popular beliefs and the intellectual level (literature, philosophy and theology). On the popular level, or the level of customs, our present situation is not that different from the Middle Ages, or the 14th-16th centuries, sadly famous for the importance given to diabolical phenomena. There no longer are, it is true, Inquisition trials, deaths at the stake for the possessed, witch hunts and similar things; but practices that have the devil at the center are even more widespread than they were then, and not only among the poor and popular classes. It has become a social (and commercial!) phenomenon of vast proportions. More than that, it could be said that the more one tries to expel the devil out the door, so much more does he return through the window; the more he is excluded from faith, the stronger he gets in superstition.

Things are very different at the intellectual and cultural level. Here the most absolute silence already reigns about the devil. The enemy no longer exists. R. Bultmann, the author of the demystification, wrote: “One cannot make use of electric light and the radio, one cannot make use of medical means and clinics in case of illness and at the same time believe in the world of spirits.”

I believe that one of the reasons that many find it difficult to believe in the devil is because they look for him in books, whereas the devil is not interested in books, but rather in souls. Paul VI reaffirmed forcefully the biblical and traditional doctrine on this “dark agent and enemy that is the devil.” He wrote, among other things: “Evil is no longer only a deficiency, but an efficiency, a living, spiritual, perverted and perverting being, terrible reality, mysterious and dreadful.”

In this realm, however, the crisis has not happened in vain, without bearing even positive fruits. In the past, talk of the devil was often exaggerated; he was seen where he was not; many offenses and injustices were committed with the pretext of fighting him; much discretion and prudence is necessary not to fall in the enemy’s game. To see the devil everywhere is no less deflecting than to see him nowhere. St. Augustine said: “The devil rejoices when he is accused. More than that, he wants you to accuse him; he accepts gladly all your recrimination, if this serves to dissuade you from making your confession!”

Therefore, one understands the Church’s prudence in discouraging the indiscriminate practice of exorcism by people who have not received any mandate to exercise this ministry.

Our cities are full of people who make exorcism one of the many paid practices and they boast of removing “spells, the evil eye, bad luck, malignant negativities on people, houses, enterprises, commercial activities.” It is surprising that in a society such as ours, so alert to commercial frauds and willing to denounce cases of excessive credit and abuses in the exercise of a profession, many people are found willing to swallow such hoaxes.

That day, even before Jesus said anything in the synagogue of Capernaum, the unclean spirit felt ejected and obliged to come out in the open. It was Jesus’ “holiness” that seemed “untenable” for the unclean spirit. The Christian who lives in grace and is temple of the Holy Spirit, bears in himself some of this holiness of Christ, and it is precisely the latter which operates, in the environments where he lives, a silent and effective exorcism.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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