As belief in the Devil declines, evidence of his influence increases

Detail from the cover of 'Freedom from Evil Spirits: Released from Fear, Addiction and the Devil' by Fr Pat Collins CM

Fr Pat Collins thought the Devil was simply metaphorical, until he visited Dachau

There is an interesting passage in Freedom from Evil Spirits: Released from Fear, Addiction and the Devil by Fr Pat Collins CM, a Dublin priest, retreat leader and exorcist. Born in 1945 and ordained in 1971, he writes: “At that time I suspected that references to the Devil were a metaphorical way of speaking about the dark side of the unconscious mind and the systematic evils inherent in the unjust and oppressive structures of society. I tended to understand the evil of the Holocaust in these reductionist and rationalistic terms.”

Then in 1972 he visited Germany on holiday with a priest friend. They went to Dachau, the concentration camp outside Munich, where they saw the gas chambers and crematoria. Fr Collins relates: “Not only did they resurrect my troubled, adolescent feelings about the Holocaust, I seemed to have a direct gut level sense of the mystery of evil as I stood there.” He admits that “At that moment, I spontaneously felt that the Holocaust was demonic in origin and that my sense of God was inadequate in comparison to such a horror.”

Decline in belief of God in the West has led to a decline in belief in the Devil. Fr Collins’ book suggests that this has led, paradoxically, to increasing evidence of the “malicious activity of the evil one all over Europe.” His priestly ministry has largely been devoted to helping people find relief from diabolical oppression which, as he explains, can include fear and addictions: “Although fear is a natural emotion and addictions are forms of illness, nevertheless the Devil can and does exploit them in order to lead people into sin.” Even if e.g. alcoholism is seen as a moral failing rather than an organic disease, its destructive results are worthy of the gleeful stratagems of Screwtape.

Collins’ book is a very useful, clearly written description of the hidden activity of evil spirits, which are generally more subtle and pervasive than films like The Exorcist and its macabre sensationalism would suggest. The author cites many authors, including saints such as Therese of Lisieux, to support his arguments, not least the late Archbishop Fulton J Sheen who commented drily, that “Satan has very little trouble with those who do not believe in him; they are already on his side.”

Lent begins with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness and ends with the start of the Passion when Satan “entered into” Judas. We are back with the mystery of evil, which always starts with individual assent. When once asked what was wrong with the world, the incomparable GK Chesterton responded with characteristic candour, “I am.”