“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the sufferings.” (Matthew 24:7).
When prophecies sound like news reports, it’s easy to become concerned.
Last year alone gave us missile launches from North Korea to the Sea of Japan, famines from billions of locusts in Africa and India, millions of acres burned in California, multiple 7.0+ earthquakes, and a riot that resulted in the occupying of the United States Capitol. Oh, and let’s not forget the plague. We can’t forget it – it’s still going!
At work, I had an outspoken atheist say that the events of this last year had her concerned that we just may be in apocalyptic times. Indeed, as the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. Whether or not we are in apocalyptic times, it certainly feels like we are in one collective foxhole.
It’s easy to look at current events and become concerned; it is natural to see the devastation and look for answers. Interestingly (and it’s almost reassuring), this is not unique to our time. There have been almost 3 million COVID-19 or related deaths. Yet, World War II resulted in at least 23x that amount of casualties. Why is it so easy to forget that? We are only 1 century from Hitler taking control of the Nazi party. Why does COVID-19 seem like the end of the world when we know that WWII resulted in the United Nations, a new international order in Europe, and a myriad of human rights declarations?
As evil as Joseph Stalin was, he may have had an answer when he said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” When the death toll climbs and you know people who are part of it, it is imminently real. You wonder if your other loved ones will succumb in a similar way, and you start looking for answers. And that makes sense.
In the Bible, it is times like these when great prophets would arise. Moses would bring God’s people out of Egypt after ten disasters such as plagues, boils, thunderstorms with hail and fire, locusts, and more, culminating in the death of the firstborn. Noah would build the ark and watch the world drown around him as people outside his family rejected God. Amos and Hosea challenged King Jeroboam II who turned away from God to idolatry and oppressed the people. We need a champion who will communicate God’s message for us. These calamities will cease, if only we listen. Right?
So, where is our prophet now?
We are hard-wired to seek prophecies. They are found in every culture and in every religion. From the Oracle of Delphi to Zoroaster in Iran, Buddha in India, and many others we want to believe them. Astrological “prophecies” are printed in many newspapers, and people read them and take them seriously enough to base important decisions on them. Yet, most of them are broad enough to apply to anyone, and fairly common-sense advice.
We must keep in mind that prophecies that sound powerful and elaborate are not necessarily true. Second Century Montanists claimed the Second Coming of Christ was to be within their lifetimes. Mohammad and Joseph Smith both claimed to receive God’s word via an angel who was sent to set the record straight, practiced polygamy, overemphasized works, and denied the Trinity.
A prophet is someone who is God’s mouthpiece, which is the very reason we need real prophets. However there are many false prophets who claim to speak with God’s authority, but really they come to deceive. Jesus warned us about false prophets (Matthew 7:15). But, the difficult part about these false prophets is that they tend to show up when you are most desperate to hear God’s voice.
For this reason, the Church differentiates between public (Scripture) and private revelation and then takes steps to approve, reject, or stay silent and investigate the private revelations. The Church reacts with prudence as it relates to the reports that these revelations took place. If revelations never happened or are false, we do not want to adopt them and then have to backtrack. If revelations are true, we want to make sure we respond correctly.
The norms have been in place since at least the Council of Trent, and clarified and updated occasionally, such as the Vatican document, Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations. In said document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states:
By reason of its doctrinal and pastoral task, the competent [Ecclesial] Authority can intervene motu proprio and indeed must do so in grave circumstances, for example in order to correct or prevent abuses in the exercise of cult and devotion, to condemn erroneous doctrine, to avoid the dangers of false or unseemly mysticism, etc.
The Church stays silent more often than not, but that does not equate to a tacit acceptance. If the Prophecy of the Popes attributed to St. Malachy is true, then Pope Francis’ papacy is the last. This should terrify people! However, I dissent from any ruling from pop culture and look to the Church. The prophecy has been around since its publication in 1595, which is several hundred years after the attributed author’s life. It is the source of all sorts of people’s anxiety that this is “the end”, as the prophecy puts it. Yet, Scripture tells us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:35–36). Surely, St. Malachy is not an exception!
While a lot of the rejected or unapproved prophecies sound legitimate and intriguing, there are often some major problems with them, such as the rejection or distortion of Scripture and Tradition, unconfirmed authorship, and incorrect attribution. From the Prophecy of the Popes to Nostradamus, to QAnon, these problems pervade. The Church uses a scalpel instead of an axe to handle them, though. For instance, it appears that the private revelation in Medjugorje will be partially accepted, as was the case of Mother Gabriele Bitterlich. Mother Gabriele wrote extensively on private revelations and prophecies concerning the angels. Despite the Vatican censuring her work, it approved several organizations that sprung from it, including Opus Sanctorum Angelorum and the Community of the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
In these already-confusing times, it is best to look to the Church. It is understandable why we would look for answers that are specific to the issues we are dealing with today, but the pastoral approach the Church takes to protect us from false prophets is for our own benefit and the salvation of our souls. It is not only natural that we look for answers, but it is also pleasing to God that we do so because it means that we are placing our trust in Him and we believe, as the Church proclaims, that the Holy Spirit speaks through the prophets.
It might be discouraging when the Church has to approve, particularly in instances when she remains silent. Yet, caution and prudence are exactly what St. Paul taught us in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, “do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good”. Sometimes it takes time to determine what good is.
We are living in times where the disasters are of biblical proportions, and it’s understandable if we look for the big answers. But when the prophecies come, we test them, and so will the Church. The best thing we can do is to heed her judgments and be open to the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Stephen Muff, Esq, MPA is a Catholic Christian who lives in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. He serves on his parish council and is participating in a three-year faith formation program for the laity. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and DC and currently works in-house for a financial technology company.