Interpreting the Signs of the Times
In Matthew 16:2-3 Jesus said,
“When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning,
‘today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the face of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”
Definition of ‘Signs of the Times:
The signs of the times are significant events which, like so many dots, prophetic people can join together in such a way that they discern what on earth God is doing for heaven’s sake.
This notion was referred to during and after the Second Vatican Council. In par. 4 of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World we read,
“the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.”
While serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger commented on the connection between prophecy and the signs of the times,
“There is a link between the charism of prophecy and the category of “the signs of the times,” which Vatican II brought to new light.… To interpret the signs of the times in the light of faith means to recognise the presence of Christ in every age. The private revelations approved by the Church help us to understand the signs of the times and to respond to them rightly in faith.”
Some Prophecies given over the last Fifty Years
During the last half century, the Lord has revealed “things to come” (cf. Jn 16:13) in the form of a number of prophetic utterances.
- In 1969, Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, spoke in a prescient way on German radio. He foretold that the Church of the future would have to undergo all kinds of humbling and purifying adversity. He said,
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”
Then he went on to talk about troubles that would eventually afflict secular society. He predicted that people in a totally planned world would find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they had completely lost sight of God, they would feel the whole horror of their poverty, at a spiritual and psychological level. What he said reminded me of what Paul had written about unbelievers who are, “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).
- In 1975 there was a much-quoted prophecy which was delivered in the presence of Pope St Paul VI in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It spoke about how times of darkness would come upon the Church. Echoing what Ratzinger had said in Germany a few years earlier, the prophecy went on to say that the troubles in the Church would eventually be followed by days of darkness in secular society.
“Because I love you I want to show you what I am doing in the world today. I want to prepare you for what is to come. Days of darkness are coming on the world, days of tribulation.”
- In 1980, the late Fr Mike Scanlon received a powerful prophetic word about the purifying tribulations that would befall the Catholic Church. Part of it stated,
“The time that has been marked by my blessings and gifts is being replaced now by a period to be marked by my judgment and purification. What I have not accomplished by blessings and gifts, I will accomplish by judgment and purification.”
I think that it would be fair to say that those warnings about purifying tribulations to come in the Church have been, and still are being fulfilled. During recent years we have had to repeatedly acknowledge all kinds of criminal and immoral behaviour in the Church from cardinals and priests through to the lay members.
Threatened by an immense danger
St John Paul II was one of those prophetic people who could interpret the signs of the times. In 1980,
he said in par. 15 of Rich in Mercy,
“If any of our contemporaries do not share the faith and hope which lead me, as a servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God, to implore God’s mercy for humanity in this hour of history, let them at least try to understand the reason for my concern. It is dictated by love for man, for all that is human and which, according to the intuitions of many of our contemporaries, is threatened by an immense danger (my italics).”
A year later in 1981, St John Paul said to pilgrims,
“We must prepare ourselves, to suffer great trials before long, such as will demand of us a disposition to give up even life, and a total dedication to Christ and for Christ. With your and my prayer it is possible to mitigate this tribulation, but it is no longer possible to avert it, because only thus can the Church be effectively renewed.”
Speaking about the coming time of tribulation Pope John Paul stated that it,
“lies within the plans of Divine providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously.”
It is significant that when Pope Francis announced the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015, he referred in his papal Bull, The Face of Mercy, to John Paul’s words about the world being faced by an immense danger. When I spoke briefly at the 2019 Divine Mercy Conference in the Royal Dublin Society, I echoed the intuition of many when I recalled a prophecy I had received in Assisi while attending a conference there. It spoke of a time of tribulation that would come in the near future for the whole of Western Europe.
Ever since then we have had to contend a growing number of crises such as destructive fires in the USA and Australia, huge swarms of locusts devouring the vegetation in a number of African countries, fierce hurricanes and storms, together with unprecedented amounts of rain and widespread flooding. At the beginning of 2020 we became aware of the corona virus in China. Since then it has become a pandemic which has swept across the world with disastrous consequences. Not only will it result in many deaths, it will undermine the world’s already vulnerable economic institutions which are floating on an ocean of indebtedness. As Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, said in his 2016 book The End of Alchemy: Banking, the Global Economy and the Future of Money,
“The crisis (of 2008) was not a failure of individual policy makers or bankers but of a system, and the ideas that underpinned it…There was a general misunderstanding of how the world economy worked.”
A little later he predicted,
“Another crisis is certain, and the failure … to tackle the disequilibrium in the world economy makes it likely that it will come sooner rather than later.”
As a result of the impending economic recession or even depression in 2020, there will be growing unemployment and bankruptcies which could give rise not only to extreme political parties but also social unrest. There is reason to believe, therefore, that the trials foretold by many Christians are coming to pass. A question that can be asked is this, from a Christian point of view, how should we understand what is happening?
Jesus on the Signs of the Times
In this reflection I would like to interpret current events in the light of something Jesus said in Lk 13:1-5 where we read,
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Scripture scholars say that neither of the incidents which are mentioned by Luke in this passage was referred to in any other part of the bible or the secular histories of the time. Evidently, both of them took place during Jesus’ lifetime within a stone’s throw of one another in Jerusalem. We know very little about the Galileans who were murdered within the temple precincts. At Passover time, large crowds used to come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice in the temple. It is quite possible that during a disturbance that occurred there, Pilate’s troops quelled the unrest in a violent way that led to loss of life. Evidently, the blood of those who were wounded and killed was mixed, in a sacrilegious way, with that of their animal sacrifices. Josephus, the Jewish historian, recalled a similar incident in his Antiquities, when a number of Samaritans were executed on Pilate’s orders following a religious protest.
As far as the collapse of the tower which killed eighteen men is concerned, we know a little more about it. Archaeologists, are fairly sure that they have discovered its ruins near the spring of Siloam (cf. Jn 9:7), several metres south of Herod’s fortress. We know that Pilate had been trying to improve the water supply to the city and was stealing temple revenues to finance the project. The Pharisees argued that the labourers who worked on the building of the aqueduct were wrong to do so. The collapse of the tower may have been due to the fact that its foundations had been undermined by the construction work nearby.
In the Jewish theology of Jesus’ time, the people would have assumed that the victims in both incidents had lost their lives as a punishment for their grievous sins. As Eliphaz said to Job:
“Consider now: who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?” (Job 4:7).
The same belief was evident in the story of Jesus’ cure of the blind man,
“His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus surprised the enquirers when he said that the man’s blindness had nothing to do with his own sins or those of his parents.
As far as Jesus was concerned although the people who died were sinners, they were no more so than anyone else. As Joachim Jeremias pointed out in his New Testament Theology,
“In Lk 13:1-5, Jesus expressly attacks the dogma that misfortune is a punishment for the definite sins of particular people. Rather, suffering is a call to repentance, a call which goes out to all. Whereas his contemporaries ask, ‘Why does God send suffering?’ the disciples of Jesus are to ask, ‘For what does God send suffering?’ Jeremias goes on to say, “One answer would be, God allows suffering, in order to summon people to repentance lest they suffer a greater catastrophe.”
The reply of Jesus does not support the mistaken notion that an angry God inflicts suffering and death upon sinners as a punishment. Like people who suffer from lung disease as a result of smoking, sinful people are the authors of their own misfortunes. Understood in that way their sufferings can be seen as self-inflicted punishments. But if the truth be told, God, who is unconditionally loving, hates sin but loves the sinners and does not want them to suffer. Secondly, given the fact that people do suffer affliction, it can be seen as a happy fault in so far as God can bring good from evil. For example, when Joseph met his brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt, he said to them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20). God has allowed but not wanted the current pandemic. In words from the Exultet on Easter Sunday the pandemic can, paradoxically, become a “happy fault.” The infection contains an implicit invitation to come to one’s senses, like the prodigal son, and to return to God the merciful Father. When Jesus called his contemporaries to repent lest they perish, what had he in mind? I think there were three possible levels of meaning implicit in what he said.
Three implications of Jesus’ words
Firstly, as scripture scholar George Caird, has rightly pointed out in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, unlike his fellow Jews, was able to read the signs of his times. Caird wrote,
“In the mounting hostility to his own mission, in the strained relations between Jew and Gentile, in the frequent outbreaks of patriotic frenzy, and in the growing severity with which these outbreaks were suppressed, Jesus read the signs of the times, which he believed should be equally legible to others. As in the days of Isaiah God had used Assyria as the rod of his anger, (cf. Is 10:5ff), so now he was about to use Rome as the agent of his judgment upon his people; and only immediate repentance could save them.”
Tragically, the people failed to heed the Lord’s repeated calls to repent. No wonder Jesus wept over Jerusalem (cf. Lk 19:41-44). He knew that, as a result of their rejection of him and his message, the people would suffer terribly when their city and its temple would be destroyed by General Titus in 70 AD which would involve a terrible loss of life.
- Ireland re-living the temptations of Christ:
Secondly, that same dynamic has been repeated over and over again down the centuries, including the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Let me take the example of Ireland, which has wider implications for other countries. When St John Paul II visited the country in 1979, he said in a prophetic manner in Limerick,
“What would it profit your country to go the easy way of the world and suffer the loss of her own soul? Your country seems in a sense to be living again the temptations of Christ: Ireland is being asked to prefer the ‘kingdoms of the world and their splendour’ to the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt 4:8). Satan, the Tempter, the Adversary of Christ, will use all his might and all his deceptions to win your country for the way of the world. What a victory he would gain, what a blow he would inflict on the Body of Christ in the world, if he could seduce men and women away from Christ. Now is the time of testing for your country.”
More than forty years have passed since the Pope spoke those challenging words. Sadly, we would have to acknowledge that many Irish people have failed to heed them. Here are some reasons why I say this.
- Since 1979 Church attendance has dropped from around 80% to 30%.
- There are very few vocations to the priesthood or religious life.
- Although they were contrary to Christian values, the referendums on abortion and same-sex marriage were passed by a two-thirds majority.
- Last November the pagan Festival of Puca was revived at Hallowe’en with the support of Fáilte Ireland and the County Councils of Meath and Louth.
- Week by week we hear of terrible crimes, such as the murder and dismemberment of a 17-year-old teenager in Drogheda.
- In recent years, there has been a growing demand for prayers for deliverance and exorcism from people who feel oppressed or possessed by evil spirits.
- Currently there is a growing addiction problem, for example, the current epidemic of cocaine use.
- The social media abound in vile and hate-filled messages.
It would seem that Christian Ireland is participating in the mass apostasy that is taking place right across the continent of Europe and other parts of the world. As St John Paul II said in par 9 of his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, The Church in Europe, there is
“an attempt to promote a vision of man apart from God and apart from Christ. This sort of thinking has led to man being considered as the absolute centre of reality, a view which makes him occupy – falsely – the place of God and which forgets that it is not man who creates God, but rather God who creates man. Forgetfulness of God led to the abandonment of man. It is therefore no wonder that in this context a vast field has opened for the unrestrained development of nihilism in philosophy, of relativism in values and morality, and of pragmatism – and even a cynical hedonism – in daily life. European culture gives the impression of silent apostasy on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist.”
I have noticed that during the corona virus epidemic, mentions of God or prayer have been notable by their absence in the media, even on St Patrick’s Day.
Over the years, the Lord has invited, even implored, people by means of the words and example of recent popes, bishops, priests and many prophetic men and women, to undergo a change of heart as a result of experiencing the free gift of God’s mercy. But by and large their appeals, like those of Jesus, have been ignored. In par 1588 of her Diary, St. Faustina Kowalska, wrote these thought- provoking words on God’s behalf,
“In the Old Covenant I sent prophets wielding thunderbolts to my people. Today I am sending you with my mercy to the people of the whole world. I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to my merciful heart. I use punishment when they themselves force me to do so; my hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice. Before the day of justice I am sending the day of mercy.”
In our modern secular society many citizens fail to acknowledge God’s ultimate authority in the realm of morality, and nearly everyone does as he or she thinks is right (cf Jud 21:25). In my opinion, we have to understand the tribulations we are currently enduring within this wider moral and religious context. Paradoxically, from a theological point of view, current tribulations are at once a painful consequence of modern society’s forgetfulness of God, and at the same time a mercy in so far as God allows us to be disciplined by painful events, such as the current pandemic, as a way of calling those who are contrite to repentance. As Hebrews 12:11 says,
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
- The danger of forfeiting eternal salvation:
Thirdly, when Jesus urged the people of his time to repent in order to avoid perishing at the hands of their Roman occupiers, he saw the impending destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, as a metaphor for the much greater tribulation (cf. Rev 7:14) that will occur before his second coming, no longer as the merciful Lord but as the just judge of the living and the dead. So when he used the word ‘perish’ when talking about the two incidents in Jerusalem, it ultimately referred not so much to the possibility of immediate physical death, but to the possibility of the second death, namely, to forfeit eternal salvation as a result of irreversible separation from God following the general judgement.
It is my guess that the current tribulation will be met by mixed reactions, as was the black-death in the fourteenth century.
- Some people will turn away from God in an angry resentful way believing that there is no deity, or that God has turned away from them. As a result, they may be inclined to eat drink and be merry believing, in a rather despairing way, that tomorrow they will die.
- Others will be like the Egyptians of old who as Wisdom 17:12-13 tells us were overwhelmed by irrational fears,
“For fear is nothing but surrender of the helps that come from reason; and the inner expectation of help, being weak, prefers ignorance of what causes the torment.”
- Others, however, may be like the prodigal son who, humbled by his tribulations, came to his senses and decided to return to his father. Like him, many modern men and women may respond consciously or unconsciously to the words,
- “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Is 55:6-7).
- As a result they will be more open to the good news of the gospel, for example as a result of the witness of a practicing Christian, or by attending Alpha Courses or Life in the Spirit Seminars. When they hear the kerygma, that is, the core Christian message about Christ’s unconditional love and mercy, they may be willing to change their thinking and behaviour as a result of experiencing the outpouring of God’s empowering Holy Spirit.
In the meantime we need to listen to the prophetic voice of the Spirit and to intercede for the people who are afflicted. When he spoke at Limerick in 1979, St John Paul II said,
“I ask you today for a great, intense and growing prayer for all the people of Ireland, for the Church in Ireland, for all the Church which owes so much to Ireland. Pray that Ireland may not fail in the test. Pray as Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’”
When I was writing this reflection, I felt led to read 2 Chronicles 6. It describes not only how king Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, but how in his fourth petition he spoke these words, which are as relevant today as they were when they were first uttered,
“When famine or plague comes to the land, or blight or mildew, locusts or grasshoppers, or when enemies besiege them in any of their cities, whatever disaster or disease may come, and when a prayer or plea is made by anyone among your people Israel – being aware of their afflictions and pains, and spreading out their hands toward this temple – then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Forgive, and deal with everyone according to all they do, since you know their hearts (for you alone know the human heart), so that they will fear you and walk in obedience to you all the time they live in the land you gave our ancestors” (2 Chron 6:28-31; 1 Kings 8:37-40).
We are told in 1 Corinthians 3:16,
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”
Nowadays the members of Christ’s living temple are empowered by the Spirit to pray “in spirit and truth” (cf Jn 4:23-24) that the people of our day will repent by wholeheartedly accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
While I was writing the foregoing paragraph, providentially I received the following words of Vassula Ryden. On March 13th 2020, the Lord said to her,
“Summon the people and tell them: without repenting and truthfulness in your prayers, this evil will last longer than you think; turn to me, your God and repent; a sincere and universal prayer will reach me, your God; fasting will cast away demons; any sacrifice is acceptable to me; cast away your lethargic spirit and renounce your evil ways, and make peace with me, your God; let me hear: “Lord have mercy on me, the sinner!” and I will show compassion; and I will rain blessings on all of you; come, do not fear; I am listening.”
If people fail to hear and respond to God’s voice in and through current events, I suspect that even though they will eventually come to an end, they will only be succeeded by even greater tribulations in the future. God will continue to knock on the door of the hearts of those who are no longer mindful of the divine presence or purposes.
This is obviously a time of crisis. Apparently the equivalent word in Chinese is composed of two characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity.” One could anticipate that the current crisis will either lead to new opportunities as a result of repentance or to unforeseen disasters of various kinds as a result of hardness of heart. The choice is ours. I want to conclude with a prayer for Ireland: