Salem and the Smoke of Satan
by George Weigel
On May 13, 1982, Pope John Paul II flew to Portugal on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for his life having been spared the year before. At the airport welcoming ceremony, the pope, reflecting that he’d been shot on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, mused that, “In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.” What we think of as coincidental is rather a facet of the divine plan for our lives that we’ve not fit into the proper frame. So I’ll take it as providential that I was reading Msgr. Stephen Rossetti’s book, Diary of an American Exorcist, when I recently visited Salem, Massachusetts, to speak at the Saint John Paul II Shrine of Divine Mercy.
The shrine is well-located, for Salem is badly in need of divine protection. The town is, of course, notorious for the 1692 witchcraft trials that resulted in the judicial murder of twenty innocent men and women. Yet despite the nebulous guilt that hovers over Salem, the local economy seems dependent on witchcraft, Satanism, and similar perversions of the supernatural.
Salem hosts the Cabot-Kent Hermetic Temple, which boasts of being a “federally recognized Temple of Witchcraft.” Then there is the Satanic Temple, which, with no sense of irony, requires that “proof of vaccination…be presented upon entry”—vaccination against COVID-19, but not, evidently, against the wickedness that God proscribed in Leviticus 19:26: “You shall not practice augury or witchcraft.” And the streets of historic Salem are replete with shops hawking tarot cards, ouija boards, and other alleged instruments of divination and fortune-telling.
For moderns who imagine that “Satan” and “satanic” are heightened metaphors for evil—“Hitler was satanic”—these expressions of the dark arts may be harmless toys. But when Father Robert Bedziński, the rector of the Divine Mercy Shrine, describes what happens in Salem around Halloween, including Satan-worshipping “Black Masses” in which stolen, consecrated hosts are desecrated, it’s hard to think of these things as mere games played by silly people. Something else is going on.
When I was preparing The End and the Beginning, the second volume of my biography of John Paul II, I discussed with the postulator of the late pope’s beatification cause the occasions on which John Paul, by quietly praying with a disturbed person, relieved what may have been that person’s oppression by the Evil One. Without drama, Msgr. Sławomir Oder said of Satan, “I feel his presence in this office every day. He hates him and he will do anything to stop the beatification.” I promised my friend that I would pray for his protection; we then pondered the possibility that a recent calumny against John Paul, which the postulation had to investigate and rebut, might have been concocted by a former leader of the Stasi, the old East German secret intelligence service.
The Evil One operates through many instruments, it seems. And once one surrenders to hatred, ideological besottedness, jealousy, fear of the present, or despair about the future, the door is open for the Great Tempter to work his wicked ways through human weakness. Pope Paul VI’s warning in 1972 — that “Satan’s smoke has made its way into the Temple of God through some crack” — now seems prescient. That smoke is not only choking those “progressives” who deny settled truths of Catholic faith. It is befouling parts of the right-of-center Catholic blogosphere as well. (And that’s before we get to Twitter.)
Msgr. Rossetti’s book, which combines accounts of the work of Church-sanctioned exorcists in relieving satanic oppression or possession with reflections on the mystery of evil and its sundry expressions, warns against confusing mental illness with the work of Satan—a point on which Rossetti, a practicing psychologist, speaks with authority. Nonetheless, Msgr. Rossetti is quite clear that dabbling (or worse) in the kind of occult esoterica undergirding Salem’s economy opens cracks through which demonic forces can enter, often undetected.
The same dynamic is at work in world affairs. An appeal to Satan is not necessary to explain the evil Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine. But that evil has opened more cracks through which the Great Tempter takes advantage of our vulnerabilities: as he does in the savagery of barbaric military assaults on innocent civilians; or in the sex trafficking of refugee children; or in deliriums of conspiracy theorizing that befog moral judgment; or in the obstinacy of those who cannot concede that, in the matter of Putin, alleged defender of Christian civilization, they have mimicked Lenin’s “useful idiots.”
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us.