The greatest success the Evil One, the Father of Lies, has perpetrated in our time is to persuade the world that he does not exist. He is not some socio-psychological construct of the human psyche to represent our shared experience of evil. Rather, the devil is very real and his kingdom seems to be ever growing.
The existence of the devil and his minions was not something so swiftly relegated to the realm of the imaginary in the minds of our ancestors. In the early Church at Rome, the Christian faithful gathered at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls on this Third Sunday of Lent to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries with the Holy Father over the tombs of Sts. Stephen and Lawrence.
During the course of the liturgy, the catechumens, those who were rejecting paganism and preparing to receive the sacrament of Baptism at Easter were put through the first of a series of three scrutinies. Scrutiny comes from the Latin scrutari, who were those who searched through the rubbish in the hopes of finding something of value. The scrutiny consisted of the teaching of the Creed and the Pater Noster, the laying on of hands and the exorcism of the elect. A small trace of these scrutinies remains in the exorcisms found in the Rite of Baptism. The names of the catechumens and their godparents were inscribed on the diptych, the list of those who were mentioned during the Memento of the Mass.
There was indeed a great need to scrutinise closely the lives of those desiring to embrace the faith after having led a life of paganism. Does not the psalmist say, “All the gods of the gentiles are demons?” (Ps. XCV, 5). Conversion to Christ means a radical change of life and a rejection of the pagan abandonment to the sins of the flesh. That is why the catechumens were exorcised and the Epistle was read.
Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints,nor obscenity, nor foolish talking, nor scurrility, which is to no purpose; but rather giving thanks: for know ye this, and understand, that no fornicator, nor unclean, nor covetous person, which is a serving of idols, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Ephesians 5:3-5)
The Gospel recounts the episode of Our Lord driving out a demon from a mute man. As soon as the Saviour has driven out the evil spirit, the man known to all as dumb, immediately opens his mouth and speaks (cf. Luke 11:14). The devil, in fact cannot bear certain words and he does his best to keep that mouths of many closed. His dominion over a sinful soul is ruined when, moved to contrition by the secret action of divine grace, he casts aside his shame to confess his sins in the sacrament of Penance. His dark kingdom is ruined when the pastors and doctors of the faith courageously speak the truth, instructing the world in the matters of faith and morality. On the contrary, the reign of darkness grows when sinners refuse, out of shame to confess their sins, or even worse when the shepherds of souls tell them their sins are no longer sins. His grasp on souls increases when the pastors and their flock refuse, out of human respect, to preach by word and example the divine truth which can never change.
Saint Paul continues in the Epistle:
“Let no man deceive you with vain words, for because of these things cometh the anger of God upon the children of unbelief. Be ye not therefore partakers of them. For you were heretofore darkness; but now light in the Lord. Walk ye as children of the light.” (Ephesians 5:6-8)
We, just like the Ephesians and the catechumens of ancient Rome, are tempted to cast aside the sweet yoke of Christ: the truths of His divine teaching and the commandments He has given. Let us ever have before the eye of our mind the words of our Blessed Lord: “He that is not with me, is against Me: and he that gathereth not with Me, scattereth” (Luke 11:23). During these weeks of Lent, let us take on with increased simplicity and faith the means that the Church proposes to combat the powers of darkness: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let us follow the example of our Lord, Who after driving out other demons following the unsuccessful attempts of His disciples said: “But this kind of demon is not cast out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:20/21).