Are the End Times Near?
Reading Heralds of the Second Coming by Stephen Walford is a salutary reminder of the eschatological and even apocalyptic character of Christianity. But reading the book also requires constant vigilance. The reader must distinguish the intrinsic link between the present and the end times (which should be part of every Christian’s outlook) from the dubious implication that the world is about to enter its final days right now. We are in a deep Christian sense always close to the end times—and that is both the strength and weakness of this book.
Walford has a scholar’s grasp of the writings and speeches of the popes during what he calls the Marian Era, beginning with the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and continuing to the present day. He mines these materials to show that the successors of Peter in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have confirmed the sense given to the faithful by the various Marian apparitions during this same period, a sense that the war for souls is escalating, and that we must turn to both Mary and the Divine Mercy to save the world before the coming of Christ in glory. Thus the author treats the great popes of the twentieth century along with the Second Vatican Council as “heralds of the Second Coming”.
To his credit, Walford states explicitly at many points in his narrative that we cannot know whether the end times are imminent in a human chronological sense. We simply do not know whether, in the perspective of our own generation, we should expect the culmination of history “soon”. But the whole point of the book tends to belie this caution. It is obviously framed and written to highlight a recent intensification of the struggle between light and darkness and so to create the expectation that we are, as it were, on the verge. The book borrows both its urgency and its potential popularity from the very thing it formally states we cannot know.
Walford clearly wishes to exploit this sense of urgency without crossing a deadly theological line. The result is that he seizes upon everything in modern papal discourse on the eschatological or apocalyptic elements of the Christian message as having special meaning for our own age. The author continually calls these statements “prophetic”—not in the sense that the full Christian message is always prophetic, but in the sense of hinting at something imminent.
Thus when Pope Pius XII (in 1943, during World War II) explained that the duty of the faithful to associate “their sufferings with the torments of our Divine Redeemer” was “more clear than ever, when a gigantic conflict has set almost the whole world on fire” (see p. 50), Walford insists that Pius was making an “apocalyptic” reference. Similarly, Pius must have been speaking “in prophetic terms” when he gave an address to youth on Our Lord’s eschatological discourse in Matthew 24:32: “Summer will come, beloved sons; it will come with a rich yield. The earth drenched with tears will smile with pearls of love, and from soil bedewed with blood of martyrs, Christians will spring forth” (see p. 59).
The same is true throughout the book, perhaps most notably with Walford’s interpretation of John Paul II’s emphasis on a new springtime. “Can it be doubted,” he asks, “that the Pontiff proclaims the new springtime as that time when the Lord will return with all his saints?” (p. 154). Yet the cautious reader will perceive that this interpretation is essentially gratuitous. To recast a popular image in a new context, it would seem that when an author’s only tool is the apocalypse, everything begins to look like a prophecy.
In exactly the same way, when John Paul II said to the Spanish bishops, “May the Virgin, Mother of the Church, Our Lady of Hope and Advent, give us the grace to accomplish the task of a new evangelization to prepare hearts for the coming of the Lord” (p. 163), Walford insists that the Pope was making an “explicit” statement about the “eschatological significance” of the new evangelization. This continues right to the end. The book closes with Pope Benedict’s statement that “one day, not far off, everything will find its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of justice and peace.” Walford, of course, calls this statement “a prophetic message”. Never mind that it was part of an Advent homily.
The Christian Message Is Always Prophetic
But of course all of these things really are generally prophetic in the depths of Christianity itself. The whole Christian message is bound up with the threefold coming of Christ, in time, in grace and in glory. For the Christian, the three are in many senses conflated. We receive the historic work of Christ through grace as a foretaste of glory. Everything we turn our attention to under the influence of grace is at once an immediate redemptive reality and a pointer to the perfect end of all things in Christ. These connections are the warp and woof of Christianity. In this sense, Stephen Walford is right on target.
It is the author’s effort to generate a more specific context that causes problems. If we become convinced by the book that our own human era is somehow obviously closer to the end of history than were earlier eras (except in the sense that, sooner or later, the end will come) then we are almost certainly on the wrong track. Insofar as Walford sends us on the wild goose chase of mining papal documents for confirmation that the end times are upon us, then the book will be but one more apocalyptic distraction from our daily task of pleasing God simply by doing His will.
We must recall that both a healthy and an unhealthy sense of the imminence of Christ’s coming has pervaded the Church from the first. Some of the earliest Christians actually refused to work because the end was near, but St. Paul had no patience with them. Moreover, we must recall that many historical situations have seemed just as devastating to the people of the time as do our own trials of Modernism and Secularism. Consider the Roman persecutions, the barbarian invasions, and the Great Schism; the conquest of the Holy Land, Constantinople, and parts of Europe by Islam; the manipulation of the episcopate and even the papacy by noble families; the years before the end of the first millennium (not to mention those in our own lifetimes at the end of the second millennium); the corruption of the hierarchy in the Renaissance, the Protestant Revolt with its horrendous fracturing of Christianity, and the rise of both rationalism and skepticism—all before the trials of our own particular era.
No, the correct approach is to understand that Christianity is always both immediate and eschatological; Christians are always carrying the cross now and preparing for the future apocalypse; we have always a relationship with Christ in troubled times, leading to life with Christ in glory. In this sense, all of Christianity is prophetic, yet we still know nothing—I repeat, nothing—about God’s own sense of time. Things now are exactly the same as when St. Peter himself addressed this question:
[D]o not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance…. But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. (2 Pet 8-9; 13-15)
Walford does not repudiate this counsel, but the force of his entire presentation depends on the reader forgetting it. If Heralds of the Second Coming will make these words of the first Pope resound in your heart, as I believe they resound in the heart of Stephen Walford, then you should read it. But if the book will cause you to be as preoccupied with the end-times as the author himself seems to be, then you should not.
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Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 09, 2013 12:24 PM ET USA
Your position Dr Mirus, is supportable, but dangerous. To suggest that the book is of less consequence as "apoclyptic" theology is already woven into the fabric of our Catholic culture could be viewed as superficial. The ancient Jews at the time of Christ felt the same way about their "Messianic" theology. They thought they knew all that was worth knowing concerning who and what Messiah ought to be and they tragically told the Christ Himself that to His face. Humility is most necessary.