Interview with Michael D. O’Brien—Libros Libres, Barcelona, Spain
Republished in translation, in a number of Spanish language journals
- Why have you written this sequel of “Father Elijah” so many years after the first one? Had you thought in this sequel from the beginning, or there has been some reason to write it now?
O’Brien: Though the possibility of a sequel was often suggested to me by readers, I rejected the idea for many years. However, during the past few years powerful images and scenes for the continuing story kept arising in my imagination, begging to be set down on paper. So I prayed and waited. Then came a moment when it was clear that I should write the book, and that the time was now.
The war between good and evil has grown ever more intense, and complex, since I first wrote Fr. Elijah. We are now living in an era of massive apostasy from true Faith, the degeneration of a once-Christian civilization in the West, with the inevitable assault against religious freedom. This is substantially different from the condition of the early Church, which was largely composed of people who had known darkness and were thirsting for light; theirs was a world crawling out of paganism. In our times, apostate Christians have known something of the light and yet are choosing to slide back into the darkness of a neo-paganism, justifying it as more “loving” or “tolerant” than God’s plan for mankind—than the Spirit and Truth which lead to life.
- Your main work as a writer has been “The Last Days” series. Do you think that our generation is “The Last Days” one?
O’Brien: I think so, though I would be happy to be wrong about this. In our times, unprecedented apocalyptic signs are emerging all around us. Certainly, there have been lesser apocalypses throughout our history, but none with the magnitude and character we are now facing. I keep always in mind the Lord’s warning that we must “stay awake and watch at all times,” a warning which applies to every generation. We know that at some point there will be a generation that will be put to the test in a radical, absolute way, a global persecution of all those who follow Jesus. The generation which is least awake, which has been lulled to sleep by sin and error, drugged by pleasures and by deceptions, will be the very one that Antichrist will dominate. My purpose in writing fiction that examines apocalyptic questions is to ask my own generation, “Are we awake?” and equally important, “Are we spiritually prepared, if these are the times foretold by the prophets and by Jesus himself?”
- How do you conceive those Last Days? Are they different of the End of the World?
O’Brien: The entire post-Resurrection era is the Last Days, and there remains only a final, ultimate battle to be completed. “Little children, it is the final hour,” says St. John (I John: 2:18), and in an alternative English translation, “Children, it is the last days.” Yet the time of Antichrist and his False Prophet is not the end of the End, not the end of the world. According to sacred Scripture, there will be granted to the world an era of peace after the time of Antichrist—“a thousand years of peace.” (see Revelation, chapters 19 and 20). But we must not mistake this period as a literal millennium. In Biblical language it represents a prolonged period of time.
- What’s your opinion on Millenarianism?
O’Brien: It is not only a grave error in judgment and a misreading of Scripture, it is a heresy condemned by the Church. Even “modified Millenarianism” is rejected by the Church. (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 676). In its various forms, Millenarianism proposes a literal thousand years in which Christianity will flourish as a global kingdom, sometimes imagined as an earthly realm of materialistic delights. This concept is very superficial. The era of peace that comes after the reign of the Antichrist will be Eucharistic and Marian, in a world that has been humbled by chastisements and persecution, the Church purified and strengthened by its trials, and mankind living in a much simpler, more faithful way than we have since the beginning.
- Why do you think that it’s necessary today for Christians to think on the Last Days, even if those Days were still very far?
O’Brien: To put it simply, because our Lord Jesus in the Gospels exhorts us to be vigilant in every generation. And in the Revelation of St. John, the risen Lord continues to warn us of the approaching dangers of the ultimate tribulations that will come upon the Church and all mankind. Too easily do we avoid the question if we posit the Apocalypse as some mega myth safely distanced in the future. It may be that God in his mercy will permit us more time, but we cannot presume upon this. Christ has exhorted us to be prepared always. “No man knows the day or the hour ….”
- In Father Elijah novels the Antichrist is a human being. But there are some people who think that the Antichrist may be an ideology or a secular power. Even the islam has been considered an Antichrist. What is your opinion?
O’Brien: Reducing the Antichrist to an ideology or political configurations is a simplification that makes us more vulnerable to deception. Yes, of course, the various manifestations of evil in our present day are of the spirit of Antichrist, which has been with us from the beginning. The apostle St. John writes, “many Antichrists have come” (1 John 2: 18); and “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the Antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2: 22-23). However, scripture is very clear that, at some point in history, when the definitive Antichrist arises and takes control of the world he will be a real person, “the Man of Sin, the Son of Perdition.” Many of the major forces presently at work in the world will likely play crucial roles in his rise to power. They will do so by further destabilizing civilization, creating the external conditions and the internal psychological cosmos that make men receptive to a new “messiah.” It will be accomplished through multiple combinations of subtle erosion and full frontal attack—by seducing mankind through lies and flattery and unceasing propaganda, and by the relentless social revolution that dismantles the moral foundations of the West. Militant Islam will surely play a role in this, as perhaps will the geopolitics of China and Russia, but I would say emphatically that it is the apostasy of the once-Christian West which has opened the gates to these radical evils.
- Apparently, thinking of Last Days ought to be “pessimistic”. But your works give a message plenty of hope. Is it a contradiction?
O’Brien: Neither pessimism nor shallow optimism are Christian views of history. Authentic hope is ultimate realism. But this sort of realism demands courage, if we would see things as they are.
In my novels, even when the fictional characters go through dark experiences, I always point to the presence of Christ and divine providence with us when we carry our crosses and sometimes are crucified on them. I always point to the coming victory of Christ over all the “principalities and powers” of evil in the high places and in this world. This is consistent with the prophetic dimension of Scriptures and the teachings of the Church.
We should never make a false distinction between the call to evangelization and the call to remain alert regarding apocalyptic elements in our times. To do so would be to say that the Church must be a man with only one eye. In reality, the living Church is more like a man with two eyes—which gives him depth perception. And even this metaphor is limited, because the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is richly blessed with a multitude of gifts that offer us true vision.
- Which are the links between Father Elijah and “Lord of the World” by Hugh Benson?
O’Brien: I read Benson’s apocalyptic novel more than forty years ago. I can’t recall much about it now, though I believe he presented a portrait of mankind’s blindness and spiritual condition that was, in essence, close to my novel. Of course in details it is quite different, since the texture of his story was conditioned by the world as it was more than a century ago.
- Which are the differences between the Christian dystopias (Benson, yourself) and the secular ones (Huxley, Orwell)? And which are the common points?
O’Brien: This question really needs a book-length answer. However, a first glance would see the common points as a shared concern for human societies in crisis, the loss of fundamental human freedoms, the horrors that arise from totalitarianism or neo-totalitarianism. However, Christian dystopias do not stop short at merely analyzing the dynamics of civilizational degeneration. The Christian vision understands that man’s efforts to save himself through ideological revolutions of various kinds—social, cultural, political—will fail. It goes without saying that all “men of good will” share a desire for freedom and human dignity, the atheist or agnostic as well as the believer. Yet for the man without God, his “tool-kit” for building and sustaining a truly human society is very inadequate. He may succeed in part, for a time, but ultimately he will fail, because he has banished grace from his personal world, and in his unbelief he has reduced the meaning of the human person to a tragically stunted concept.
Because of its very nature, the “intrinsically perverse” political form of secular messianism (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 675-677) will degenerate into thinly disguised totalitarianism (at best) or aggressive anti-human totalitarianism—though it will do it in the name of “humanism.” In contrast, Christianity proposes a social order based on absolute principles which preserve man’s eternal value and his dignity in this world—if we live according to these principles. A Christian dystopia dramatizes what can occur when these absolutes are eroded or attacked overtly. At the same time it points the way, sometimes only by implication, to an authentic restoration.
- Which is your “personal” relationship with Father Elijah? Is he the most important character in your whole work? Which part of Michael O’Brien is present in Father Elijah’s life and person?
O’Brien: Of my twelve published novels, only four are overtly dystopian or apocalyptic. The character Fr. Elijah is the most important figure in those of my books which could be called “warning fiction.” This is because he embodies in fictional form the nature of the Church’s mission, which is evangelical and prophetic, and bears witness to the Truth in its teaching and pastoral fidelity, and in its willingness to accept martyrdom. Like the Church, Father Elijah knows that he will be a “sign of contradiction”, a sign that will be rejected.
How much of myself is present in the character Father Elijah? I suppose I am a lot like him in temperament, though not in my particular vocation and mission. I am a married man, father of six, grandfather of ten, an artist and a writer. Yet it is my hope that in the specific calling of my creative work dimensions of witness are present. I would say that among the numerous characters in my novels the ones who are most like me are Josip Lasta in Island of the World and Alex Graham in The Father’s Tale.
- What’s your opinion on the present state of the world? Don’t you think that the extremely confused situation between the different countries is an obstacle for a World Order? And which is the role of “peace” as “mantra” of that World Order, when we see so many terrorists attacks and potential wars in the world?
O’Brien: This is an excellent question, one which I continually ponder. Satan’s realm is divided within itself, and yet the “father of lies, the killer from the beginning”, as Jesus calls him, is capable of provoking wildly diverse eruptions of evil for his own long-range purposes—even clashes between forces that appear to be opposed to each other, for example between ISIS and the hedonistic Materialism of Europe. There is no contradiction here, because the devil can manipulate these disorders to bring about collapse of resistance to his plans.
My sense is that as the conditions in the world become more violent and insecure, people will increasingly yearn for a meta-solution to mankind’s chaos. The time will be ripe for the Antichrist to become prominent, offering “peace” and “security.” As Scripture reminds us, many will say “Peace, peace!” where there is no true peace. He will appear to be a kind of secular messiah, resolving humanity’s seemingly irresolvable problems. But his peace will be one that cannot last. It will be an “order” that must be increasingly enforced by oppression, step by step, culminating in the worldwide persecution of all who resist his will.
- Do you think that the gender theory may be the final instrument of the devil in his war against God?
O’Brien: Without a doubt, it plays a major role in the growing confusion and moral disorders of Western societies. Is it the devil’s final instrument? I do not know, but it surely is one of his most powerful deceptions.
- How do you see the present situation of the Church in the world?
O’Brien: The Church is growing in Africa and Asia. Indeed, there are probably more true Christians in the underground Church in China than there are in all of North America. Without exception, the bishops’ conferences of Africa are entirely faithful. In contrast, Europe is a catastrophe, eroding, eroding, eroding, with only islands of fidelity here and there. Even so, in every nation, individual bishops are feeding their flocks with dedication and often at great cost in terms of suffering. Saints are being formed, lay evangelical movements continue to work for the good, and heroic young people embrace the call to priesthood and religious life. But in all places there is a great sifting, a great testing. In most nations, where we are not undergoing outright persecution we are being characterized through media and culture as a repressive, dying old structure, that must either conform to the spiritus mundi or be forced into a ghetto where we no longer have influence.
- Do you think that the battle at the recent synod, in which we have seen in danger two sacraments, and the post-synodal battle, are manifestations of a more transcendent war?
O’Brien: Yes. The very nature of the Church and the divine moral order are being assaulted by Satan and by those who are, unknowingly, his human agents, through external assaults and internal betrayals. The adversary knows that the Church is the one presence in the world that stands in defense of the whole truth about marriage and family—indeed about man’s nature and his eternal value. The Church has within it the capacity to resist the devil’s plans. But if we are not faithful to our calling, how will mankind be defended? How will we truly know ourselves? How will we stand before the Lord on the Day of Judgment?
At the same time, I believe God is bringing good out of the confusions and evils that have emerged. He has permitted it in order that we might see how great is the need for the purification and strengthening of the Church. We must pray and fast for her, perhaps more than we have throughout the past two thousand years.
I would add that an edifying consequence has been the emergence of the truly apostolic bishops and cardinals who have defended the Faith during the synod and during the post-synodal period. It is also a necessary reminder that the Church is not a Euro-centric entity, but is the Mystical Body of Christ in this world. I think there is a great beauty in the way Africa and Asia are now sending missionaries to darkest North America and Europe. Please, send us more!
- Which are your advices to the Catholics of our days in order to be prepared for the spiritual battles to come (and the present ones)?
O’Brien: In all that is about to happen we must keep the eyes of our hearts on the true horizon. Have confidence in the coming victory. Trust! Above all, Trust!
Pray and fast for the conversion of souls and our own deeper conversion. In this way, through prayer and sacramental life, we will grow in deeper union with the living Jesus, who is with us until the end of the ages and will lead us through all tribulations.
Pray earnestly for our priests and bishops and the Pope. We must love the Church with an indestructible love, in her beauty and in her humiliations. Keep your eyes on her profound identity as the Bride—the Bride being prepared to meet the Bridegroom.
Michael D. O’Brien