The first sign something was going very wrong at Nordstrom last November was the couple running up the down escalator. They were the herald to avoid the man with the rifle just below. It was at that moment that the gunshot-like sounds we had just heard made sense, and a long night began for what would seem like every law-enforcement agent in New Jersey.
That first Monday in November last year ended in the early hours of Tuesday, when 20-year-old Richard Shoop was found in a remote part of the Garden State Plaza with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.
I think of him often not just because I had been only a few yards away from meeting him that night, but because the agony he must have been living through is not his alone. Richard Shoop was battling some demon, whether it be clinical depression or dark choices we can so often hellishly settle for, as lights of faith, hope, and love have all seemed to fade.
As October 2014 wrapped up, Pope Francis talked about the devil. That’s not because he was getting into Halloween, but because the first reading designated for Masses on October 30 was from St. Paul to the Ephesians, urging that we put on the full spiritual armor of God for the power to resist temptation.
During his morning homily, Pope Francis said: “Life is a military endeavor. Christian life is a battle, a beautiful battle, because when God emerges victorious in every step of our life, this gives us joy, a great happiness: the joy that the Lord is the victor within us, with his free gift of salvation. But we’re all a bit lazy, aren’t we, in this battle and we allow ourselves to get carried away by our passions, by various temptations. That’s because we’re sinners, all of us! But don’t get discouraged. Have courage and strength because the Lord is with us.”
The headline on the Vatican’s news page Thursday summed it up: “Pope: Christian life is a continuous battle against the devil.” Pope Francis talks about mercy and joy, but he also talks about the devil. Why this matters beyond pope-watching is that the devil is in the details of so many of our most contentious debates. Acknowledging that would help us see more clearly and make progress. As a moral shepherd during confusing times — during which we have unprecedented communications opportunities and yet a fractured ability to talk given sharp divides and language differences even among those who speak the same tongue — he is trying to get us to go deeper, to see the full context of our lives. One where you cannot be indifferent to the pain someone unknown to you is struggling with, or someone in front of you whom you might think you are too busy to care for — or about.
Even as we hear another round of scurrilous election-season claims that seeking to protect innocent human life and religious liberty is akin to waging a “war on women,” real oppression exists and afflicts the hearts of men and women among us. As a nation and a culture, we settle for evils that poison our interactions, our policies, and our ability to lead with a rooted optimism that sees morning, a City on a Hill, and even the New Jerusalem in the future.
And so when we see evil, we look away, seek to explain it away, or pretend that we can legislate it away. Law is a teacher, but it needs students who see the Source of the law.
It’s not only when it comes to reporting on Pope Francis that the media miss the point on matters of faith. Asked about that recent meeting on the family, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput recently said at a First Things forum: “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.” That was reported as Chaput’s having blasted the synod as being of the devil. Oy! Even if you take his comment out of context, as I just necessarily did, that’s not what he said.
Chaput also said: “None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’s terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian — you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.”
And that’s the case whether we’re debating poverty or marriage. It’s not which side we would be more comfortable on but conformity to all that is good, true, and transformational. Life is about so much more than our clever ideas or finding our way on our own.
The devil is in the distractions, in the indifference they breed and the comfort we take in simply taking sides and not being on guard for evil in our midst in the most subtle and even mundane ways. Discerning such details in daily life prepares us when danger comes and darkness falls. The examined life helps us see more clearly what’s happening not just when facing a man with a rifle in a mall, but before he ever gets to that point, so that we might help him confront the damned devil head on. The more people on guard, the less lost we are. Seeing what is right before our eyes helps us with diagnosis, prescription, healing, and prevention. The road to hell, meanwhile, is paved with indifference and euphemistic delusions, distractions, and discouragement.