Are We Living in Apocalyptic Times? (part 2): Question Period


Question Period:

“Are We Living in Apocalyptic Times?”

(part two of a talk given by Michael O’Brien at St Patrick’s basilica, Ottawa, September 20, 2005)

Question: I was reading a quote from John Paul II recently in which he says that our consciences are like fine musical instruments that need to be continually tuned. I’m particularly struck by our need to have child-like docility, the openness to the Holy Spirit that will allow him to fine-tune our conscience. Can you respond to that in light of what you’ve said tonight?

O’Brien: I wholeheartedly agree with what the Holy Father said, which he expressed better than anything I could say. The image of our conscience being tuned like a violin is apt, because the creation of human life is, like the creation of music, a co-creative process. In both fields we respond to a grace that is given from above. Our conscience always needs tightening up, like the tuning pegs of a string instrument, because the strings are always tending to get lax. It is the beloved instrument’s submission to the master composer and the master musician which is going to pour forth this beauty of music—the music of our lives—into the world.

It’s interesting that you use the word docility to the Holy Spirit. This is a very important term. God does not want us to be passive like a hand puppet. He wants us to be sensitive and responsive in an intimate dialogue between lover and beloved, between God and the creature he loves so much. Docility is fundamentally different than either passive quietism or, on the other hand, activism.

Question: I am curious to know why you have not referred to subjects such as warnings of a coming divine illumination of conscience, a worldwide chastisement, and a thousand years of peace. These are an important part of the messages of many seers and visionaries in our times.

O’Brien: I am familiar with these themes, which are often in current private revelation—a coming warning, illumination of conscience, and chastisement on the world, if mankind does not repent, followed by a thousand years of peace. I can say as my personal opinion, yet always in submission to the discernment of the Church, that I believe we are approaching (and many people are already experiencing) a worldwide illumination of conscience, an enhanced and accelerated revealing to ourselves the actual state of our souls, how we truly are in God’s eyes. If mankind as a whole is soon to experience such an illuminating moment, it will be a shock that awakens us all to the realization that God exists, and it will be our moment of choice—either to persist in being our own small gods, denying the authority of the one true God, or to accept divine mercy and live fully our true identity as sons and daughters of the Father. If mankind does not choose the latter, there will follow a purification of the world. Exact dimensions, dates, and times are subjects I don’t write about or speak about because I simply do not know what they will be. I stay awake and watch. I do not discount prophecy, but it is not my task to teach it; I leave that to the Church.

Question: But the thousand years of peace is scriptural, isn’t it? It will happen!

O’Brien: The “thousand years of peace” described in the 20th chapter of Revelation will happen as prophesied. We have to ponder and pray, and study what the Church teaches regarding this mysterious period. Many seers and writers are presently proposing various scenarios about the subject. Some are clearly erroneous, with theological errors, some promote outright millenarianism, and others propose a modified millenarianism, both of which interpretations of scripture have been condemned by the Church. In their grossest forms, they follow the old Chiliast heresy which proposed a literal thousand year reign of Christ physically present on earth, presiding over a kingdom of excessive sensory delights. Modified millenarianist speculations tone down the consumption and pleasures somewhat, but continue to propose a paradise fully realized in this world. These scenarios are now returning in less hedonistic forms, and are sometimes promoted among Catholics by people of good will.

According to the teachings of most Church Fathers, including Apostolic Fathers, the “thousand years of peace” is a symbolic number, signifying a more or less prolonged period of extraordinary conversions and restoration in Christ, at some point after the crucial stage of the apocalyptic struggle (the rise and fall of the Antichrist) and before the final unleashing of Satan and his ultimate destruction. The “thousand years” is situated between the destruction of Antichrist and the final destruction of all Satan’s power. Only at the end of time, at the “end of the End,”  if you will, is Satan cast into the Lake of Fire, where the Antichrist and the false prophet have, at that point, already been thrown. Then comes the new heavens and the new earth and the giving of the celestial city, the New Jerusalem.

If the Book of the Revelation is a vast panorama covering the entire period between the Incarnation and the coming of the New Jerusalem, we must be careful about applying strictly linear templates onto a multi-dimensional vision. How and in what way the symbolic elements will become literal is not yet clear. For that reason, the precise chronology for all these things to happen, the lengths of times involved, may be pondered in the heart with much prayer (as Our Lady “pondered” the prophecies of Simeon “in the heart”), but we should not be too quick to accept any private interpretation as definitive. I simply do not know what will happen in specific terms, and thus hold back from adding my own speculations to the already overloaded field. We must listen to the wisdom and discernment of the universal Church under Peter. Again, I believe we will know what we need to know, when we need to know it.

Question: Are you suggesting we not listen to private revelation?

O’Brien: I’m not suggesting that at all. I’m cautioning that we need to exercise more careful discernment than we have been, asking God for the gift of prudence and wisdom. St. Paul sets the parameters of discerning private revelation. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he writes, “Do not despise prophecy.” Then he adds, “But test every spirit.” Do not quench the Holy Spirit but examine carefully everything that comes through human instruments. Thus, our approach toward apparent visionary revelations coming from private individuals should be: Ponder these things in your hearts and pray about them, but do not be too quick to accredit them with a kind of magisterial authority. The Church in our times has also given us guidelines for assessing private revelation, and the great saints have likewise done so. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Ignatius of Loyola and others have written about the valid role of interior locutions and similar phenomena in the spiritual life. Yet they caution that these must be assessed with prudence, because our human imagination and also the deceits of the enemy can simulate such graces, or alternatively infect legitimate graces with subjective interpretations.

The gap between an authentic, inspired “word” of private revelation spoken by God, and the interpretation of that word in the human mind can sometimes be a big one.

And regarding deceptive spiritual “inspirations,” remember that our adversary the devil has a long history of observing us. He has a PhD in psychology.

[the host, Richard Bastien, intervenes with the following comment:]

Richard Bastien: And he’s granting degrees too!

Question: In bringing up apocalyptic subjects isn’t there a danger of spreading fear and pessimism? It seems the encyclicals of John Paul II promote a new evangelization, which implies he didn’t foresee any apocalypse in the near future.

O’Brien: I agree that one of the primary themes in John Paul II’s encyclicals is evangelization. He taught us that Christians must keep doing what we are called to do in the evangelization of the world until the moment of Our Lord’s return in glory. At the same time I would also refer you to the apocalyptic thread in a number of his teachings, as well as the address he gave in 1976 during his visit to the United States.

For a follower of Christ it can never be a case of, on one hand, “We’ve got lots of time left, so let’s not think about the end.” Nor can it be, on the other hand, a case of “Well the apocalypse is here, it’s all over, let’s hide!” These are precisely the attitudes I wish to avoid.

The genuine Catholic vision of the unfolding of history must never be reduced to such either/or scenarios: neither a secular messianism dipped in religious jargon nor a fervent orthodoxy that abandons the call to bring the Gospel to the nations, right to the very last moment. Yet we know from sacred scripture and the Catechism that there will come a point in history when all our efforts will be eclipsed for a brief time by a massive unleashing of evil, during the time of the Antichrist and also at the very end, immediately before the final return of Christ. For this reason we must have a multi-dimensional approach: we work while the light lasts, as Our Lord exhorts us to, yet remain conscious that in the end only divine intervention will restore the entire world to obedience under God’s authority. It’s entirely consistent, therefore, that a Pope can call us to hope-filled evangelization while exhorting us to remain awake and alert to the “signs of the times.”

The Popes of the 20th century did this effectively. Our new Holy Father, Benedict XVI, as a cardinal and now as the Pope, has frequently made references to passages in the Book of Revelation and connected them to the condition of the modern world. The Popes do not offer us an either/or scenario, as if the evangelical calling were in opposition to the eschatological. They offer us both. Thus, our approach in every generation should be an integration of both streams of vision. Or, if you will, both eyes seeing as one. Combined, they give us depth perception. And that is the approach I try to encourage always.

By and large, our major weakness at this point is a widespread apathy among believers; in contrast, those who succumb to a fear-based apocalypticism are a small minority. Our mission is to look forward in Christian hope, as did our Holy Fathers, with eyes wide open about the unique character of our times. I believe that John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical on the Mercy of God, Dives in Misericordia, indicates the proper understanding we must have regarding the state of the world, and about mercy and justice. I doubt he would have placed this teaching in opposition to Redemptoris Missio. The retreat he gave to the papal household of Paul VI, published as a book under the title Sign of Contradiction, is also well worth reading in the context of our subject.

Question: I’m wondering if we don’t get lost, a lot of times, with so many practices in our spiritual life. And what’s really important is our orientation towards God or towards self-indulgence. Have we examined that enough, and heard it enough? Because the basic sin is to put self in the place of God.

O’Brien: I agree, the basic problem is one of choice. Are we making a fundamental choice for God or for self? Though there are layers of choosing in our lives, and a multitude of expressions of this basic choice, we needn’t make it complicated. Perhaps you are also raising the question of the ways we pray, especially our devotional life. To my mind, these are all languages of love between man and his creator. So, whether one is Marian or Charismatic, or both, or prays in one or more of the many other ways open to us, it is all a flow of love, if the heart is truly speaking to and listening to the Holy Trinity. Personally, I pray the Divine Mercy chaplet every day. We pray the Rosary every day in our family. I strongly believe in the unique role of the Mother of God in these times. As the Mother of the Church, as the Woman of Revelation 12, as the New Eve she has a unique role in the defeat of the enemy, in confounding his malice and deceptions, and in the end to crush his head. These are times of confusion. Darkness is spreading in men’s minds; they no longer feel certain about what is real and unreal, true and untrue, and thus there is great need for all of us to return to the foundations: the teachings of the Church, the sacred scriptures, the lives of the saints, and simplicity and clarity in the way we live. If our spiritual life—if our lives—are built upon this, we will have more than enough light.

Question: Can you speak about the Polish Solidarity movement, and about the Holy Father, John Paul II, who with the help of Our Lady was able to slay the Beast of Soviet communism that has taken the lives of more than forty million people.

O’Brien: That would require a book-length answer, but let me say briefly that the power of prayer, combined with consecration to the Mother of God, combined with a willingness to live with moral courage, can resist and overcome any adversary. The fall of the Soviet empire, and also the fall of the corrupt Marcos regime in the Philippines, were not revolutions accomplished by bloodshed. They were revolutions of prayer, “Marian revolutions” in character. They achieved the impossible against overwhelming odds, without firing a shot or launching a missile. And that is a sign for us all.

Question: Is the Antichrist abortion?

O’Brien: I think you’re asking if abortion is of the spirit of Antichrist. Yes, I believe it is. Satan was a liar and a killer from the beginning, scripture tells us. In abortion we always find falsehood and murder combined. The lie proclaims that the child in the womb is not human, or if it is human that it has no absolute right to life. This falsehood is an attempt to justify the murder—a term which both Church and governments universally define as the unjust taking of human life. Many nations of the Western world have institutionalized abortion as a right—murder as a right—and in countries such as our own, citizens are forced through taxation to pay for this murder. On so many issues, men are now calling evil good, and good evil. That is a significant sign of the times.

Question: So, if the family of a raped girl is trying to help the girl make a decision about whether or not to have an abortion, you’re saying that the right decision is for her to have the baby, and to look past the embarrassment and distress this would cause, financial and emotional, etc. They’d be making a decision for God?

O’Brien: To choose life is to choose the path God has commanded all of us to follow. Yes, all kinds of hardships may result from the birth of this child. But if Our Lord shows us anything about the role of the Cross in our lives, our uniting of our own sufferings to His, it’s this: Even the most severe blows of suffering, which may be the result of our own sins at times, or the result of sins committed against us, can be turned into fruitfulness. Indeed it can even bring about a great good, if we give it enough time, if we don’t lose heart and don’t grasp at hasty solutions. The Christian community is called to rally around women who are suffering in this way, who are faced with the choice to destroy their child or to give it life. To kill a child because its conception came about through the evil act of rape simply compounds one evil upon another evil. This child has done no evil. The child in the womb is an eternal soul.

Some years ago, after one of my talks, a fine young woman in her early twenties came up to me and told me a little about herself. She was studying at university, was obviously intelligent, thoughtful, and a strongly believing Catholic. She also told me that she was conceived when her mother was raped as a teenager. She went on to say that she and her mother love each other very much, and have a deep relationship. Over time, the pain of her origins has been healed. Her mother married a good man and they have a large and happy family. Her mother chose life, and in time her choice for life brought about great fruitfulness, life flowing from life, life spreading life. The young woman expressed herself with a radiant face, a face full of love—how grateful she was for her life, and for her mother’s choice.

Question: Can you suggest what we should do to strengthen the Church in this land?

O’Brien: We are being called by the universal Church to turn to the Holy Eucharist with renewed focus and faith. This includes the practice of Eucharistic adoration. John Paul II urged that adoration chapels be made available for prayer in every parish in the world. He also encouraged devotion to and consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. From this spiritual foundation the solutions to our myriad problems will come. You may recall the famous dream of St. John Bosco about the great trial the Church would go through in the following century, the 20th. In this dream the world is in turmoil and the Church under attack as never before, which the vision presents as a ship tossed on a stormy sea, while enemy boats fire at it. But a Pope guides the ship between two pillars which stand in the midst of the storm. On the top of one pillar is the Holy Eucharist and on the top of the other is Our Lady. The Pope secures the ship to these pillars, and then the storm and the attack end. The pillars of security for our souls, for our particular Church in Canada, and for the universal Catholic Church is union with Christ through his sacred Body and Blood in the Eucharist, and devotion to Our Lady, Mother of God, Mother of the Church, the New Eve who with Christ is helping to reverse the sin of Adam and Eve.

Question: [faintly audible, the questioner is asking about the degenerating condition of “democracies” in the West, especially their betrayal of the moral principles upon which these once-Christian nations were founded. He also asks if the weakened condition of the churches has contributed to this.]

O’Brien: For some time now, we’ve been appalled, horrified, and angry about the downward spiral of our country, as well as the condition of our particular churches. I confess that I have spent a lot of useless energy being frustrated and angry over the situation. As I get older (and older and older) I have learned that this kind of reaction is unproductive, indeed it is so often counter-productive. While we must resist the culture of death at every turn, we must do it with cool and clear minds, and firm hearts. At the same time we must understand that the primary work before us is to build the civilization of love, each of us in our own ways, according to our state in life and vocations within the Church. Everyone can help build this civilization, and it begins where civilizations always begin: with our individual souls and with our families. Nothing prevents us from making a cell of health in the dying body of our society. We can do this because we belong to another Body, a living and eternal one. If enough of us do this, we can change the world, one by one, person by person.

Our great mistakes in this land, political and ecclesial, have been made by trying to achieve good in the social order with the very approach the Catechism condemns as secular messianism. Even if we Christians did it unwittingly, we were aiding the process of social revolution, which is ultimately futile. We must now return to the hierarchical understanding of creation and how God’s authority actually works. He is a Person and we are persons living within the Body he has created for us. This is a Personalist universe accountable to God, and for that reason we must abandon forever our infatuations with collectivist projects.

Question: Are you saying we shouldn’t be involved in social justice?

O’Brien: I am not suggesting this at all. However, I believe we need to be more discerning about the ways we promote justice in the world. Too often our good intentions in this field of apostolic work have been used by others to foster agendas not in accord with the Gospels. Our good will and naïveté have at times become instruments manipulated by agents of secular messianism.

A genuine follower of Christ integrates the immanent aspects and transcendent aspects of the restoration of the world in Christ. In this land we have overwhelmingly neglected the transcendent, with all the demands of its moral absolutes, and instead have more and more projected the false notion that serving the poor and laboring for justice is, in and of itself, the Gospels. It goes without saying that sacrifice and energy must be turned toward serving the poor and working for justice, but this must not be done at the expense of truth. Such service is an essential part of the new evangelization, yet it can never be the whole of it. Tragically, the consciousness of so much church-life in Canada has become dominated by false either/or mental constructs: a person is, supposedly, either an immanentist or a pietist, a liberal or a conservative, anthropocentric or theocentric, compassionate or legalist. These fractures in our thinking spread in every direction, but they all stem from the root falsehood.

We are called by Christ to be people of love and of truth. Love integrated with Truth. To live in this way demands much courage, in our private lives and in our involvement with various aspects of public life. There is great need for people of principle and courage to enter all dimensions of public life at this time. Great need, as well, for Christian voters to elect government representatives who are not passive puppets of the “dictatorship of moral relativism.”

Question: But how does a politician stay in office so he can do some good? If he has to compromise on some issues in order to promote some good policies, isn’t this better than having no power at all?

O’Brien: Is it better? That seems to be the common reasoning in these times, and it has been institutionalized by “practicing Catholics” in our government. I believe that whenever we succumb to a false appeal to the “lesser evil” argument, we may reduce some evils in the short term, yet in doing so promote insidious long-range evils—even to the extent of evil on a massive scale.

If moral absolutes are undermined at the foundation of a society, what prevents the erosion and eventual destruction of anything and everything that the whims of the populace decide must go—a populace which is becoming ever more vulnerable to media manipulation and secular propaganda? Nothing stands in the way of this dynamic other than moral principles lived with moral courage. Each of us must ask himself, “Am I willing to lose everything in defense of a principle?”

How have we lost so many of our battles for truth in this land? We have lost most of our battles because men of basically good will succumbed to a false interpretation of the “lesser evil” argument. They believed themselves to be good persons, and as such they felt they must not lose their seats in Parliament, or lose their voice in whatever sphere of influence they found themselves. They were convinced that compromise was the only way to retain scraps of the good. They counted far too much on strategizing and far too little on grace. They were unwilling to be what the prophet Simeon called a “sign of contradiction.” They could not bear to be signs that would be rejected. They told themselves they were realists, and came to believe that those who stood firm on principles were idealists destined to fail.

And so it went, and so it goes: from top to bottom in this society, erosion, erosion, erosion!

And what is the consequence of this so-called “realism”, this supposed “lesser evil” approach? A devastated society, family life in disintegration to a degree never before seen in human history, a divided and compromised Church in this land and throughout the West, a growing apostasy unprecedented in the history of the entire Church. Human lives destroyed, vast numbers eradicated—murdered children—approximately forty-thousand a year in the province of Ontario alone.

Now our elderly and our physically handicapped are at risk. If we had more time tonight I would describe in detail the illuminating experience my extended family went through when a family member with Alzheimer’s narrowly escaped being killed in a Catholic hospital. That institutionalized attempted murder was stopped only at the last moment by a stroke of divine providence. Let me say this at least, that the nuns who own and operate this hospital had been convinced that it was morally acceptable to withdraw all water and food from a healthy woman, thereby deliberately terminating her life (a situation very much like Terri Schiavo’s), because they had been reassured by their staff theologian, a graduate of St Paul’s University, that it was not wrong to do so. They simply had never been taught, or they had ignored, the directives from the Vatican on the matter. How very widespread is such ignorance, and how very much it is fostered and justified by nuanced theology and bad ecclesiology. Such abstractions have real consequences in human lives—and by and large the main consequence of corrupt theology and disordered ecclesiology is the accelerated growth of the culture of death.

The Master of Theology who encouraged the next-of-kin to kill the mother was a nice person. She had people-skills in abundance. She knew how to handle distraught and confused family members. The meetings with her and other staff that were necessary to save the dying woman’s life were an exercise in slogging through mental and spiritual sludge, not to mention the challenge of seeing past the charm, the soft voice, the diploma on the wall, and the vague, supposedly authoritative arguments put forward by this theologian. Of course she had no authority whatsoever to violate the rights of God and the teachings of the Church, but just about everyone assumed she had. The so-called “alternative magisterium” of theologians is but one part of the sickness fostered by false ecclesiology in this country. Theologians, including theologians in error, enjoy a de facto authority while lip service is paid to the genuine teaching authority of the universal Church. Such nuances have given us dead human beings, lives which have been unjustly taken in numbers that are now measureless.

This is what we are forgetting. This is also what we must remember when considering the question of apocalypse. The world of the apocalypse is not abstractions, it is a world full of real human beings. As the Lord says to the Church in Sardis, “Awake and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death.”

The pontificate of John Paul II and now of Benedict XVI have given us the potential for a new springtime of hope. When I was a young man I never met any young believers like the young disciples of Christ whom I now meet everywhere. They are our hope, they are our future. They are the Church leaping out of the tomb and beginning the new evangelization. So let us allow the death-filled liberal experiment to die on the vine and turn all our energies and resources to strengthening this rebirth of the Faith in our land.

One of the first places we should start is to pray and fast for bishops and priests, who are under intense pressures, both spiritual and social. Another crucial area is family life. Most faithful families are struggling desperately to survive. In this country it seems that only people who violate their fertility can thrive. If you violate your own flesh by getting a surgeon to cut the very source of the God-given generative powers of man and woman, or poison yourself with chemicals to achieve the same end, or employ one or more of the other clever ways mankind has devised for telling God that he did not make us properly, and that His design is not “realistic,” you may then proceed about the business of making yourself a success in this society. For a generation now, the Church in Canada and throughout the Western world has been dominated by theologians, educators, and some clerics who either maintain that contraception and sterilization are not intrinsically evil, or who admit that it is “not the ideal” but maintain that a person who practices it is not culpable as long as he acts according to his “personal conscience.” These errors have come close to destroying the Church in this land and have contributed significantly to the ruin of the nation.

In a double-income, no-child (or at best a two-child) economy, young married Catholics who are faithful to God’s commandments and the teachings of the Church enter the realm of increased suffering. Most will not be as successful in material terms as those who have succumbed to the “lesser evil” argument in its myriad manifestations. Unless a family’s wage-earner is a professional with a large income, or the family is blessed with a rich uncle who is willing to subsidize faithfulness, the family will be severely tested and tempted. The heart, the soul, the love for spouse and children, will become “problems.” I have discussed this with hundreds of families over the years, who as they strive to be completely faithful to Christ, feel trapped in the diabolic economy of this social revolution.

The Church in this land has been endlessly dialoguing with the revolution, and losing ground year after year as it speaks in gentle measured tones and nuanced qualifiers. We have been speaking so nicely to our opponents for so long that it seems we no longer know how to exercise conviction and clarity. Thus, Catholics in Canada have created all around us an ineffective religion of niceness, a cult of niceness, and consequently have been instrumental in building a vast and not so nice charnel-house of death, discretely hidden from our eyes in hygienic institutions. It has happened because such niceness was mistaken for genuine Christian charity.

See the young people scattered throughout this crowd tonight. They are genuine heroes and heroines. They are the Church, they are the future, and we must feed them good food. They are the Body of Christ coming alive again in this dead zone, and if we neglect to nurture them we will be accountable for it on Judgment Day. We choose now. Not to choose is a choice. The kind of Church we will soon have in this country depends very much on how we choose. Unless we begin to see the nature of the problem accurately, and truly repent of our part in it, the Church is finished here. Unless there is an extraordinary change of heart, it is over. Throughout its long history the Church has died out in many regions of the world. Think of North Africa, which was once the glory of Christendom, think of other particular churches—they are gone! Why do we suppose that Our Lord has a huge investment in preserving a culture such as ours, in making this deathly civilization last a bit longer? He may do so, if there are “ten just men” still among us. And he may do so, if there is a widespread return to his holy will. Or he may not. It is not our task to weigh this matter, which is comprehensible only to God alone. Our task is to be faithful.

You, the young, are so beautiful. You have no idea how beautiful you are. We the aging and the old will be called to account for how we have protected, taught, and nurtured you for the new springtime. This springtime has indeed begun, and it can flower and bear abundant fruit for eternity, regardless of whether these prove to be the times of Antichrist or not.

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The foregoing question period and final reflection followed a talk given by Michael O’Brien at St. Patrick’s basilica, Ottawa, Canada, on 20 September, 2005. For the full text of his talk, click on the link:

Are We Living in Apocalyptic Times? (part 1)