A Clear Vision of the Reality of Supernatural Evil
The Devil in the City of Angels: My Encounters with the Diabolical
By Jesse Romero
Publisher: TAN Books
Review Author: Christopher Beiting
Also reviewed: Lord, Prepare My Hands for Battle. By Jesse Romero. Amor Deus Publishing. 186 pages. $13.95.
I was a graduate student overseas when the Catechism of the Catholic Church first came out in 1992. At the time, the International Herald Tribune published a review, in the form of a series of questions directed to the Catechism’s editor, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. One question was especially memorable. The interviewer seemed surprised by the Catechism’s strong condemnations of magic and witchcraft, and he asked the cardinal whether these passages were directed against the New Age movement or were just a holdover from the Church’s medieval past. Neither, the cardinal replied. Rather, he said, “Those passages are there at the request of our African bishops, who have to deal with this sort of thing on a day-to-day basis.”
Fast-forward 30 years, and it’s pretty clear that things have not changed much in this regard.
For many people, extraordinarily important things can begin with a simple question. Such was the case for Jesse Romero. Now a Catholic author and lay evangelist, in 1983 he was a rookie deputy sheriff working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. His first assignment out of police academy was to serve as a guard in the LA County Jail — then, as now, the largest prison in the world — a common assignment for rookies. But Romero was not just assigned to the county jail; he was assigned to the Mentally Ill Offenders Unit (MIOU), a place for the criminally insane and the worst of the worst, where serial killers, mass murderers, and sociopaths were incarcerated. Each inmate was kept in solitary confinement, and many were on death row. It was the task of Romero and his fellow guards to bring the inmates meals three times a day, patrol the MIOU at regular intervals to prevent suicide attempts, and escort prisoners — one at a time and under strict guard — to the prison’s exercise facilities.
Wanting to learn more about the people he was guarding, young rookie Romero asked his superiors where he could get more information about them. Though surprised by his request, his superiors gave him access to the inmates’ police records. He read through every one of the 200-odd records and reported his findings. Had anybody noticed, he asked, that about 100-120 of the inmates in the MIOU reported having committed their brutal crimes either to please Satan or because they believed they had been directly told to do so by Satan himself? Surprisingly, the rather obvious fact that a majority of the MIOU incarcerees were practicing Satanists seemed to have escaped everyone’s notice. When Romero’s observations percolated up the chain of command, the end result would be, among other things, the creation of an occult-crimes investigation unit in the LAPD.
Romero would find his own life changed significantly too. He continued his career with the LA County Sheriff’s Department and later managed a gym and competed on the MMA (mixed martial arts) fighting circuit, with over 60 victorious bouts to his credit. But it was his initial experiences with Satanists and serial killers in the MIOU that had the biggest effect on his life. Like many young Hispanic men, Romero was a cultural Catholic who observed his faith mostly out of habit and to appease his parents. However, his direct encounters with evil — real, supernatural evil — first in the MIOU and later over the course of his police career caused him to re-evaluate his faith and take it a great deal more seriously. He would ultimately get a master’s degree in Catholic theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he now has a successful ministry as a Catholic lay evangelist. The Devil in the City of Angels: My Encounters with the Diabolical is a short account of his life and experiences. Lord, Prepare My Hands for Battle is a personal collection of prayers, practices, and advice of a man who has lived the kind of life Romero has.
Romero makes his aim for writing The Devil in the City of Angels clear from the beginning. “My hope in sharing these stories is that whoever reads this book will learn something of the terrifying power of Satan and be scared straight and never dabble in the occult,” he writes. Romero describes his encounters with the supernatural — nine incidences of people suffering diabolic possession, plus five instances of women practicing witchcraft — from different times in his life. Interested readers can look into these tales on their own; I will recount the details of one I found particularly interesting.
Early in his career — around the time Romero discovered how many inmates of the MIOU were Satanists — he went to Mass and heard the reading from 1 Corinthians 12:3 that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Yeah, right, Romero thought. I don’t believe it. So he decided to put it to the test. One day, he singled out an inmate he knew to be a Satanist and made a bargain with him: Romero would give him a meal from the guards’ cafeteria (far superior to the bland meals the prisoners got) if the inmate would merely say the words “Jesus is Lord” aloud. That’s all. The inmate readily agreed and tried to comply, but he found that, no matter how hard he tried, he could not physically say the words “Jesus is Lord.” Each time he tried, his throat closed and he began choking. The more the inmate tried to speak, the worse the fit became, until his expression began to turn bestial, and the very temperature in the cell began to drop noticeably.
Romero tried this on several more inmates with the same result, until his fellow guards, disturbed by what was happening, made him quit doing it. But those experiences made Romero realize that the criminals who had involved themselves in Satanism were not mentally ill or deluded; they were under the thrall of something very spiritual, very real, and very evil. Moreover, the faith of his childhood, which Romero had always taken so lightly, was also clearly a very real power — a stronger one than the prisoners had — and to be true to it, he realized he had to live it more fully.
As much as The Devil in the City of Angels proceeds from a “scared straight” approach, it is not meant to be a collection of prurient horror stories. The book also contains chapters that explain the traditional Catholic understanding of the supernatural, with citations from Scripture, the Catechism, and the lives of the saints, as well as insights from prominent modern exorcists. It concludes with a chapter on spiritual warfare and how to avoid the occult, plus prayers against evil. Readers who want more of this last section can turn to Romero’s earlier work, Lord, Prepare My Hands for Battle.
This earlier work is Romero’s own set of habits, prayers, and devotions, collated by himself for himself but published for the benefit of the rest of us. It’s a longer work than The Devil in the City of Angels and a very mixed bag, but a good mixed bag. It presents traditional Catholic prayers and devotions (like the Rosary and how to say it), explanations of aspects of Catholic teaching (like the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental), lists of helpful or authoritative quotes from Scripture on various subjects (like reasons why God might not be answering your prayers), and summations of a few articles on various topics (like a scientific article on the benefits of prayer).
It is worth remembering that the material in Lord, Prepare My Hands for Battle was assembled by a man with Romero’s background, so it favors a certain kind of piety: unabashedly masculine and muscularly Christian. For example, in the intro, Romero describes the book as “my personal prayer workout, designed to make you a Catholic Christian Warrior,” elsewhere noting, “This prayer book is designed to vault you into the arena of the U.F.C. — Ultimate Fighting Catholic. I want you to be part of the M.M.A. — Mother Mary’s Army.” As a result, Catholics who consider evil to be just an “impersonal force” or the product of “sinful structures,” and whose practice of the faith does not include a concept like the Church Militant, might not enjoy this book very much.
Romero’s works are like the man himself: fiercely Catholic, proudly Hispanic, and defiantly politically incorrect. Are they perfect? No more than Romero is. His approach is pugnacious and exuberant, and he sometimes uses a roundhouse kick when a scalpel might have been in order. His clear vision of the reality of supernatural evil and the need to struggle against it causes him at times to paint with too broad a brush. Also, the editor of Lord, Prepare My Hands for Battle overlooked a lot of typos, which detract from an otherwise fine text. Though both books are worth the reader’s time, Romero’s lectures are much, much better. If you get a chance to see him live, by all means take it. He’s a dynamo.
As noted earlier, Romero is unabashedly and proudly Hispanic. In The Devil in the City of Angels he states, “If Hispanic Catholics are going to be used as God’s Delta Force in the new evangelization, then we need to be equipped against those dangerous destructive occultic groups who are preying on us.” Romero warns not only of the occult in general but of particular manifestations like Santería and the Santa Muerte cult, which are features of Hispanic culture in both Mexico and the United States and are, he stresses, spiritually dangerous and Satanic. When Romero talks about the dangers of witchcraft, he references curanderas, Hispanic “healer” women who run botánicas and sell people alternative cures for illness, alternative methods for achieving success in the world, and alternative ways for inflicting damage on those who have harmed you or whom you wish to destroy. With all due respect to Cardinal Schönborn, the dangers of magic and witchcraft are not confined to Africa, and Western Catholics need to wake up to this fact.
Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) examined the future face of Christianity. His conclusion? The future of Christianity is going to be southern rather than northern, brown or black rather than white, poorer rather than richer, biblical and evangelical rather than scholarly and liberal, supernatural rather than material, and militant rather than accommodationist. And that’s true for Catholicism as much as it is for the minor franchises of Christianity. As regards the Church in the United States, I don’t know whether Romero is right to believe Hispanic Catholics will be “God’s Delta Force in the new evangelization,” but they will unquestionably be a major factor in how Catholicism is practiced here. The next Christendom very well may be more spiritual, energetic, pugnacious, and politically incorrect — with a mean roundhouse kick, too.
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