Pope Francis locked in old-school struggle with Satan
Devil is more than an allegory for otherwise progressive pontiff, who dwells on evil in his sermons and praises the work of exorcists
A darling of liberal Catholics and an advocate of inclusion and forgiveness, Pope Francis is hardly known for fire and brimstone.
Yet, in his words and deeds, the new pope is locked in an epic battle with the oldest enemy of God and creation: the devil.
After little more than a year in office, the pope's teachings on Satan are already regarded as the most old-school of any pontiff since at least Pope Paul VI, whose papacy in the 1960s and 1970s fully embraced the notion of hellish forces plotting to deliver mankind unto damnation.
Largely under the radar, theologians and Vatican insiders say, Francis has not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors, but has also sought to rekindle the devil's image as a supernatural entity with the forces of evil at his beck and call.
Last year, for instance, Pope Francis laid hands on a man in a wheelchair who claimed to be possessed by demons in what many saw as an impromptu act of cleansing. A few months later, he praised a group long viewed by some as the crazy uncles of the Catholic church - the International Association of Exorcists - for "helping people who suffer and are in need of liberation".
Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the US and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Even Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.
While the cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, the pope was known for warnings against "the tempter" and "the father of lies". Now, his focus on the devil is raising eyebrows even within the normally unquestioning walls of Vatican City.
"Pope Francis never stops talking about the devil; it's constant," said one senior bishop in Vatican City. "Had Pope Benedict done this, the media would have clobbered him."
Vatican officials talk about a resurgence of mystical rites in the church, including exorcisms - or the alleged act of evicting demons from a living host. Cardinals in Milan, Turin and Madrid, for instance, recently moved to expand the number of exorcists in their dioceses to cope with what they call surging demand.
But by focusing on old-school interpretations of the devil, some progressive theologians complain that the pope is undermining his reputation as a leader who in many other ways appears to be more in step with modern society than his predecessor.
"He is opening the door to superstition," said Vito Mancuso, a Catholic theologian and writer.
By most accounts, the ranks of official exorcists number between 500 and 600 in a global church of more than 1 billion Catholics, with the vast majority operating in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Last week, at the ninth and largest Vatican-sanctioned convention on exorcism, attendees gushed about the fresh recognition the field is getting.
During the conference, the Reverend Cesar Truqui, an exorcist now based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. "Two lesbians," he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan's presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.
Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said: "Once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It's like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It's something you never forget."