Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Doubting The Devil Is Dangerous

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published February 17, 2011

Many people who believe in God still wrestle with the notion of the devil. They think that perhaps he’s just a symbol of evil, or maybe he’s a holdover from ancient times when people weren’t as scientifically advanced as we are today.

But if you go to see “The Rite,” you get a new twist on the whole notion of doubting the devil.

In the movie, a young Catholic man heads to seminary for all the wrong reasons, namely to get a free college education. And then, before he can get his letter of resignation accepted by his superiors, he’s sent to Rome to study, of all things, exorcism.

It’s definitely a challenge for a fellow whose faith in God is on the thinnest of ice to suddenly be thrust into the midst of demonic possessions. Still, despite what he sees and hears, which include things that defy reason, the seminarian believes he’s witnessing the effects of severe mental illness, not satanic activity.

The movie is about the young man’s gradual awakening to faith, which happens in a very unusual way. You see, it’s only when he watches someone he admires in the grips of what has to be demonic possession that he finally stops being a skeptic.

Oddly enough, before he can embrace God, he has to believe in the devil.

Watching the movie, I saw little glimpses of my former self. I recalled the days when everything about Christianity was up for chuckles.

Along with my friends, who were also diehard nonbelievers, I mocked the basic teachings of Catholicism, including the virgin birth, the various miracles performed by Jesus and, of course, the Resurrection.

As for the devil, he was a cardboard cutout figure, a cartoonish guy with a pitchfork, and just another figment of someone’s imagination.

Unlike the seminarian in “The Rite,” however, I had a conversion experience, which started with believing in God, and then proceeded to faith in Christ. Still, it was quite a few years before I admitted the reality of the devil.

I finally came to see that the devil is quite real in Scripture.

Jesus himself orders the apostles in St. Matthew’s Gospel to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.”  He was known throughout the province of Syria, we are told, as someone who cured those possessed by devils.

As I read the passages where Jesus was tempted in the desert, it became clear to me that it was not a symbol that tempted Jesus. Nor was it a symbol that asked to be worshipped.

For those skeptical about the reality of the devil in contemporary times, it may be helpful to read Matt Baglio’s “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” a chilling account of a real-life exorcist that inspired the movie. Another compelling book is by Rome’s chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, and is called “An Exorcist Tells His Story.”

In many tales, the devil is described as a fiddler. He plays the fiddle at a gathering of witches in Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre,” as well as in that famous country-western song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

In all cases, he is depicted as someone on the prowl for souls.

Doubting is part of the faith journey, as we are shown in the movie “The Rite.” But some people go beyond doubting when it comes to the devil, proclaiming with certainty that he is not real.

They may be overlooking the fact that the first word Jesus proclaimed after his 40 days in the desert was “Repent.” The need for repentance is still with us today because sin is still very real today.

If you doubt that, just take a look at the headlines and see the horrors that fill the world. Wars, terrorist attacks, violent crimes and terrible cruelty are commonplace in a world where evil is very real, and the fiddler prowling after souls is very active.

As the young man learns in “The Rite,” those who try to dilute the realities of Christianity end up with little more than tasteless gruel, which does little to satisfy the soul’s hunger and can cause real spiritual damage.

And to paraphrase a wise priest in the film who has many years of experience performing exorcisms: “Just because you choose not to believe in the devil doesn’t mean he can’t harm you.”