About 12 years ago, Donna, a Catholic mom from the Midwest, began doubting her ability to be a good wife to her husband and mother to her children. There were no family problems or marital discord to provoke such thoughts, yet the feeling remained with her relentlessly.
"I was very new in my spiritual journey," Donna said. "And, looking back now, I see that Satan was trying to brainwash me [by planting those thoughts in my head], and he was right. There was another, better Christian woman to take care of my family: It was me — I just had to keep growing in my faith."
Donna started praying more fervently and rebuked the negative force. The disturbing thoughts began when Donna had just two children. Today, she has seven, and she is constantly on the lookout for Satan trying to tear down her family.
Like Donna, many people have feelings that something is working against them, especially when they’re working to further God’s Kingdom.
Agitations arise, relationships break down, equipment fails, peculiar accidents happen or events take uncanny turns, giving one the sense that there’s an intangible, perhaps even diabolical, obstruction. Frequently, people refer to these obstructions as spiritual warfare, and their source can be diabolical, although it isn’t always.
"Usually, one can tell it’s diabolical when there’s no apparent cause for what’s going on," said Father Cliff Ermatinger, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Milwaukee, Wis., and author of several books on spirituality. "But, in a sense, it doesn’t matter, because the solution is the same: We must remain pure at all times and claim ourselves for Christ. Parents can protect their children by claiming them for Christ. It’s all about solidifying our relationships with Our Lord and our Blessed Mother and severing our relationship with the devil."
At times, spiritual warfare presents itself dramatically, perhaps requiring the help of a priest, even to the point of requiring exorcism to dispel the demon.
This type of spiritual warfare has four degrees. The first degree is temptation, which can come from any of three sources: 1) our own nature, 2) the devil or 3) the world. These thoughts or urges toward evil can be recognized as diabolical when there doesn’t seem to be any previous cause. For example, graphic images that just pop into one’s mind.
Second, demonic oppression involves a dimension of corporality. During oppression, one may experience bodily attacks or illness. The consequences are rooted in a diabolical cause and affect one’s work and relationships and give the sense of negative or harmful things converging with no obvious root. Usually, oppression is a result of dabbling in the occult oneself or being cursed by someone else dabbling in the occult. Often, people label oppression as "bad luck" without realizing its validity or cause.
Obsession happens when one becomes unnaturally preoccupied with evil. It may involve addictive or other unhealthy behaviors, but with an incorrigible aspect. In obsession, the demon attacks the person’s psychology and engenders dark and despairing thoughts that can eventually lead to suicide.
Possession is the most severe degree of spiritual warfare, during which the demon literally takes possession of the person and must be exorcized by a Church-appointed exorcist.
Infestation is a form of possession in which a place, animal or object becomes possessed (or infested) by a demon. Infestation is typified by destructive behaviors or happenings and, in the case of an infested place, is the result of some kind of demonic activity having taken place there.
"Demons are obsessed with locality," said an exorcist working in the Midwest. "A good example of this is the demoniac in St. Mark’s Gospel (5:1-16). The demons were in the man; and from the man, they went into the pigs; and from the pigs into the water. They need a place or entity in which to be. Just as an aside, that’s why we bless water and salt."
There are cases in which infestation takes the form of a wandering soul, someone who is in a special part of purgatory and needs extensive reparation. Generally, wandering souls are those who have committed suicide or murder. They seek attention, but they are not destructive. Frequently, the wandering can be abated by offering a Mass of resurrection for that soul.
"Hollywood really plays up possession and, consequently, our understanding of it has suffered," said the Midwest exorcist, who requested anonymity. "Possession is a prevalent reality that is on the increase, mostly as a result of the destruction of the family and the absence of sacramental life. This causes a vacuum that demons love to fill."
With the increasing occurrence of demonic possessions, there’s an increasing need for exorcists. Every bishop, by the nature of his office, is an exorcist. Some priests are delegated by their bishops to be exorcists, but many more are needed to engage rising spiritual combat. Currently, there are 195 dioceses in the United States, but only 51 exorcists. Those in need of an exorcist must petition their bishop via letter; the bishop then delegates an exorcist for the case.
Actual spiritual warfare is not to be taken lightly; it’s real, it’s dangerous, and it requires battle tactics laced with faith, hope and charity.
However, what most people refer to as spiritual warfare is the day-to-day opposition to our faith and ability to live good Christian lives.
"Our basic default setting for the Christian life is spiritual warfare," said Father Dwight Longenecker, author and Register columnist. "We have to understand that we’re confronted with spiritual warfare every day in multiple ways. It’s in the dramatic experiences, but it’s also in the mundane. It’s in the perseverance of faith that the real spiritual warfare takes place."
Father Longenecker cites St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians as the modus operandi for all Christians: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (6:10-12).
"Putting on the armor of God sets us up for whatever comes our way, regardless of its source," the priest said.
If we feel we’re under spiritual attack, there are a number of things we can do. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are always helpful, but they can be especially helpful when offered in love for someone who seems to be the cause of discord. Asking Mary’s protection and frequent reception of the sacraments also will strengthen us for the battle.
Fathers Ermatinger and Longenecker both recommend prayers of deliverance during these times. The "Our Father" has great power to dispel diabolical forces, especially when one contemplates the line "… deliver us from evil."
The Catechism also discusses evil in relation to this great prayer: "In this petition, evil is not 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" (2851).
Making use of sacramentals (such as holy water, crucifixes, rosaries, statues and religious medals) and invoking the Precious Blood can be powerful weapons against Satan, too.
According to Father Ermatinger, a simple prayer such as the following could be used: "I belong to Christ. I was baptized, confirmed, and I’ve given myself to the Lord. I invoke the precious blood of Jesus and pray for protection against any diabolical influence on my soul or my possessions and demand that any diabolical attack cease."
Some cases are more serious and require working closely with a spiritual director. Sophia, a West Coast copy editor, had a brush with the occult that left her embroiled in a spiritual battle. An acquaintance with connections to witchcraft had her "cursed." Just after a visit from this person, things began to go terribly wrong. She accidentally ran over her own cat, her car’s axle broke while she was driving, her computer’s hard drive crashed, and she had financial and relationship problems — among a long list of other horrific mishaps and discord. Initially, Sophia scoffed at the curse, but her priest took it very seriously, ministering to her through counsel, the sacraments, sacramentals and prayer. Now, although things are better, Sophia still feels the darkness from time to time.
"I truly believe that this ‘curse’ started something in my life that I’m still struggling against," she said. "But my faith has been growing even in the struggle. There’s really something else going on, something dark that nibbles around the edges, but can be forced back with prayer and faith."
Spiritual warfare is always difficult and sometimes frightening, but we can take heart in knowing that it’s possible to use it as a means to become closer to Christ.
"It is good to keep in mind that God the Father does not desire to make our lives miserable and that Satan does," said Schoenstatt Father Mark Niehaus, who is currently stationed in Waukesha, Wis. "Both the Lord and the devil may not, however, violate our free will. God the Father allows certain things to play their course, whether the consequences of my previous actions or the devil’s temptations (e.g., Job from the Old Testament) in order to underline our need to look to God for help. The difficulties, even the attacks we endure, mean to separate us from our own selfishness and open us more to God."
Father Niehaus reminds the faithful that God’s might and mercy are far greater than any diabolical force and urges all to find strength in the Lord’s crucifixion. "Ultimately, if we truly believe that God is omnipotent, there is nothing — no temptation or attack — that cannot be used to grow more deeply into his fatherly heart. The Crucifixion is the clearest example of a Satanic attack that Jesus uses to our benefit."
As Pope Benedict XVI has noted, "The devil, as far as Christian belief is concerned, is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolic presence. He is a powerful reality (the ‘prince of this world,’ as he is called by the New Testament, which continually reminds us of his existence), a baneful, superhuman freedom directed against God’s freedom. This is evident if we look realistically at history, with its abyss of ever-new atrocities which cannot be explained by reference to man alone. On his own, man has not the power to oppose Satan, but the devil is not second to God, and, united with Jesus, we can be certain of vanquishing him. Christ is ‘God who is near to us,’ willing and able to liberate us: That is why the Gospel really is ‘Good News.’"
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.