The following are the author’s responses to questions regarding Father Elijah: an Apocalypse, submitted by students majoring in Literature at a Canadian university. This novel is now part of the curriculum at six colleges and universities.
1) Why did you base some of your characters in Fr. Elijah on real people in the Vatican?
O’Brien: Basing some of my fictional Vatican personalities on real figures (most obviously, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger) was for the purpose of grounding the narrative in the present time, so that the reader would have a sense that the tale takes place in his own world, though set in the near future. The reader can thus sense the immediacy of some of the Church’s present internal conflicts, avoiding the alternative pitfalls of, on one hand, an overly specific scenario, and on the other hand an overly vague one. But these are the only two real ‘models’ for my characters. All the other Vatican characters are purely imaginary.
2) Isn’t it heretical for a Pope to say we’re living in the events predicted by the Book of Revelation?
O’Brien: It would not be heretical for a pontiff to speculate on the apocalyptic character of our times. Indeed John Paul II’s writings contain a current of eschatological or ‘end times’ themes. Shortly before his election to the papacy, he gave a talk in the United States in which he stated that ‘We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. . . . We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel.’ The use of the word final is significant. In his 1994 encyclical Tertio Millennio Adveniente he writes that ‘in this eschatological perspective, believers should be called to a renewed appreciation of hope . . .’ As chief pastor and teacher of the flock of the Lord, he does not succumb to either/or scenarios. He is neither a pessimist nor an optimist; he is, rather a Christian realist, by which I mean he sees the spreading darkness for what it is, and sees beyond it to the approaching final victory of Christ.
In fictionalizing the Pope in my novel, I tried to avoid putting words in John Paul’s mouth. Those themes are, in fact, very much present in his encyclicals and public talks, but both the subject matter and the precise character of John Paul’s apostolic mission are of such a prophetic nature that I wanted to be extremely careful about not intervening with my own version of what I think he’s saying. To do so would have in some way tampered with the unique character of his mission, no matter how close it would have been to his actual thought. So, the Pope in my novel is not intended to be a thinly disguised John Paul II, but rather a pope similar to this extraordinary chief of apostles.
3) Is the character ‘Stato’ based on Cardinal Sodano, the current Vatican Secretary of State?
O’Brien: No, my character is not in any way based on Cardinal Sodano. I had no knowledge of his personality or past when I wrote the novel, and merely invented a Secretary of State from my imagination, though of course, I tried to make him as realistic as possible.
4) Is the ‘President’ based on any figure now active on the world’s stage?
O’Brien: No, the ‘President’ is not consciously based on any such figure. I have intentionally made him a less clear character than others in the book, because there is a danger in being overly specific about the Antichrist. I did not want my novel to be a distraction from the timeless exhortation of the Gospel, which is, ‘Stay awake and watch . . .’ Overly specific finger-pointing (a fault of many end times novels and speculative non-fiction as well) weakens the vigilance which should be constantly active in the Church.
5) What do you think about other ‘End Times’ writers?
O’Brien: Though I’ve read few books about the end times, the ones I’ve come across seem always to contain fascinating conjectures mixed with glaring errors and weakness of discernment. I worry most about the tendency of such writers to make specific predictions. Among the end times fiction and non-fiction books flooding the market these days there is a confusing variety of scenarios, often wildly contradictory, each using scripture to reinforce its theory. The danger of stating absolutely that this or that is going to happen in such and such a sequence is that we can all too easily be distracted from the actual unfolding events of the Apocalypse. We can be misled by fascinating and even convincing red herrings. This is not to say that we shouldn’t consider the various possibilities, but we must always keep in mind that our task is not so much to know precisely (when we need to know we will know without a doubt). Our job is to be ever-vigilant, to stay awake and watch.
6) Isn’t there a danger with apocalyptic books that readers could become obsessed with the subject?
O’Brien: Yes, this a real danger. As I frequently point out in my interviews and articles, there are two alternative dangers: denial on one hand, and over-focus on the other, the latter often to the point of replacing the Gospel itself with a kind of end-times religion. By and large, however, I think denial is the more dangerous spiritual condition.
7) What are the risks for a writer such as yourself? Do you find your books are misinterpreted?
O’Brien: A Christian writer who addresses the subject of Apocalypse in our times risks being dismissed as an hysteric or an opportunist. My critics in the press have sometimes lumped me into the genre of millennialist hysteric, which makes me wonder if they read the book before writing the review. Such critics completely miss the point that reflection on apocalyptic elements in our world is not only the right but the duty of every generation: ‘Stay awake and watch, for you know not the hour when the Son of Man will return . . .’ Regardless of public response and the danger of misinterpretation, if one is called to speak a truth, he must speak it even if it is misunderstood or rejected, or simply ignored. Of course a Christian author must take care to make his writings as intelligible as possible. He has a responsibility—I might say a kind of ultimate responsibility—for the good of the souls who read his work. He must write ‘on his knees’ so to speak, praying always and humbly engaging in constant self-examination. Above all, he must ask himself if his writing flows from an integration of Love and Truth. Neither love nor truth function properly without the other, and if this integration is weak or absent in an author’s writing, there will be consequences for souls. This is a grave responsibility.
8) Did you name your central character Father Elijah because of the scripture passage in Malachi that refers to the return of the prophet Elijah before the Day of the Lord?
O’Brien: Yes. But this is not to say that Father Elijah is the Old Testament prophet Elijah returning in person. Just as Elijah’s spirit of prophecy was passed on to Elisha when Elijah was taken up to heaven, so too it may come to pass that this same spirit will be given to a figure who will prophecy against the Antichrist at the end of the ages. In Revelation 11:3-13 there is a reference to the ‘two witnesses’ who will testify in Jerusalem against the Antichrist. By tradition Catholics have believed (not as a point of doctrine, but as a pious tradition) that the Prophet Elijah and Enoch will be the two witnesses, because these two men are the only people in the Old Testament who did not die. Jesus also refers to this question, inferring that John the Baptist embodied the spirit of Elijah, the greatest of Old Testament prophets. So, too, the spirit of the prophet Elijah may be sent by God to a prophet immediately preceding the final battle. But this is only speculation on my part. God alone knows what He intends to do to fulfill these prophecies.
9) In your novel, why is an obscure priest chosen to confront the Antichrist?
O’Brien: Because Father Elijah is a man who is not only acquainted with power (earlier in his life he was a rising politician in Israel), he has passed beyond the pursuit of power (the secular order) to the genuine spiritual order of Christ’s Kingdom, into the realm of love, truth, humility, all three of which are in opposition to the diabolical realm of Antichrist. He knows what weakness is, and its great importance in any spiritual struggle (2 Cor 12:9 and Col 1:24).
10) In a chapter where Fr. Elijah first arrives in Rome, you describe an advertisement for an art show that uses the bodies of aborted children. Isn’t this a little far-fetched?
O’Brien: Aborted children have been found in garbage disposal dumpsters in North America, outside of abortuaries. I imagine similar things have occurred in Europe and elsewhere. The anarchic nature of modern avante garde culture indicates that at some point an ‘artist’ will be struck by the ‘inspiration’ to use dead bodies in ‘art happenings.’ Similar gruesome events have occurred in art circles in Europe during the past decade as secular man continues to degenerate into the realm of the anti-human.
11) Is widespread abortion a symptom of the presence of Antichrist in the world?
O’Brien: It is surely a symptom that the influence of the spirit of Antichrist is growing. The slaughter of the innocents is preparing the way for other holocausts. As scripture tells us, Satan was a murderer and a liar from the beginning. If a people can be deluded into thinking that the murder of a human being is not a great evil, the adversary has succeeded in promoting a strong delusion indeed, one that combines both falsehood and murder. If we can destroy our most vulnerable human beings, what stands in the way of expanding the definition of non-human or non-person? Nothing. Only moral absolutes stand in the way of this. On every level of society moral absolutes are denied by the secular culture, and by elements of secularized liberal Christianity.
12) Characters in more than one of your novels sometimes refer to J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. Why?
O’Brien: Tolkien’s great epic, The Lord of the Rings is an archetype of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. I believe it is the greatest myth of the modern age. It points to realities that de-Christianized man has grown indifferent to. By and large, he no longer gives credibility to what the Church says, but he may still be open to truth on the level of natural law, the instinctive sense of reality ‘written’ into our human nature. Tolkien has done an extraordinary work of ‘pre-evangelization’ or preliminary re-evangelization by reawakening conscience on the level of the imagination. My reference to his books is a salute to what he has accomplished.
13) What is the meaning of the lines where Billy Stangsby says, ‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred’?
O’Brien: This is a line from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ Tennyson’s poem about an event in the Crimean War, in which a brigade of British Cavalry charged the Russian Cossacks and were completely annihilated. In Billy’s mouth it is an ironic comment, humorously referring to the nature of heroic folly, and asking if their own quest against the Antichrist is similar.
14) Why have you portrayed Billy, who is Fr. Elijah’s first companion in the mission against the Antichrist, as a humorous and somewhat shallow character?
O’Brien: Billy represents the good man of faith, but one who has not gone as deeply into the question of spiritual combat as he should have. I felt it necessary to illustrate the dangers of combating the spirit of Antichrist without the full armor of God. Billy is a faithful priest, lovable, intelligent, successful, and basically very decent. But he is overconfident, and thus he is vulnerable to subtle deceptions. Billy represents the folly of resisting evil with human powers alone. His early death is a stark and abrupt warning, startling the reader into awareness that the nature of this mission or ‘quest’ is unique, the stakes are the highest, and absolute dependence on God is necessary for its accomplishment. In contrast to Billy, Elijah grows ever more aware of his own weakness, and thus he must depend more and more on grace in a radical way, making him a more effective servant of God.
15) Can you recommend any books on the Dead Sea Scrolls? Do you know if there have been any new finds such as you describe in your fictional plot?
O’Brien: I don’t know offhand of any scholarly work to recommend. However, as the scrolls discovered to date confirm the accuracy of our present translations of the Old Testament, I think it entirely possible that other codices will be found that confirm the accuracy of our present New Testament translations (the good ones I mean, not the revisionist theology translations).
16) Is your character Don Matteo based on any known stigmatist?
O’Brien: Don Matteo is a fictional character, not based on any living stigmatist. Of course he bears some resemblance to Padre Pio, the Capuchin friar who died a few years ago and was recently canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II. There have been about 200 stigmatists in the history of the Catholic Church, a miniscule number compared to the hundreds of thousands of canonized martyrs and other saints. As in the case of the first known stigmatist, St. Francis of Assisi, this rare spiritual calling is a sign to the world that Christ suffers in his Church, and with it, until the end of the world. The Church is not just a human institution-structure, but the Body of Christ. I recommend to you an excellent book on the subject , They Bore the Wounds of Christ by Michael Freze (Our Sunday Visitor Books, 1989).
17) Are there really paintings of the Apocalypse in the cathedral of Orvieto, Italy?
O’Brien: Yes, the murals at the cathedral of Orvieto are as described in the novel.
18) Is there a tomb of a girl-martyr named Severa?
O’Brien: The tomb of the martyr Severa is in the Catacombs of San Callistus outside of Rome, with the inscription quoted in my novel. There are miles of catacomb galleries, and visitors can go down into them on guided tours.
19) Is the demonic attack on Fr. Elijah and Stato the kind of event that actually occurs? And could it really happen in a holy place like the catacombs?
O’Brien: Those dramatic kinds of encounters with Satan are rare but not infrequent in the lives of the saints. God permits it sometimes to test his apostles, though ordinary spiritual combat (we all must engage in this) is largely invisible, non-sensory. St. Jean Vianney and St. Pio were attacked by Satan in the manner depicted in my tale, and sometimes in worse ways. Numerous other saints experienced this also. Regarding the question of whether or not Satan can enter a holy place—generally God does not permit him to do so, yet there have been incidents where he has. The devil entered the Garden of Eden, tempted Christ in the desert. As St. Pio said, Satan is a dog on a chain. The devil’s powers are limited, but he can perform some pyrotechnics at times, and on occasion in holy places. I don’t pretend to understand it, but it’s real. I suggest you read an excellent book by the Catholic Church’s chief exorcist in Rome, An Exorcist Tells His Story, Ignatius Press, 1999.
20) Can Satan physically hurt someone?
O’Brien: Yes, he can, though this too is quite rare. Whenever it occurs it’s almost always by indirect agents, human, natural, or by demonic forces influencing natural elements. His primary goal is to spiritually harm us, and thus physical attacks are not common, and then only to the degree that the adversary finds it useful in undermining us spiritually. But on occasion God permits that he manifest himself more openly, usually to saints, whom God knows are better armored for spiritual combat than are most people.
21) Are Christians anti-democratic?
O’Brien: No, we aren’t. Christians should not reject democracy, because in the human community this system of government, despite its weaknesses (sometimes grave weaknesses), is better than the alternative forms of government such as various totalitarian systems. A monarchy would be beneficial if we could be guaranteed a thousand years of saint-kings, but that is not very likely. At this time of history, democracy at least ensures the potential for exercising human freedom and for doing good. But we must never be lulled into a false sense of security about democratic government. The ‘will of the people’ is only as good as the moral character of the people.
22) Is the Antichrist foretold by scriptures alive in our times? If so, who do you think he is?
O’Brien: The spirit of Antichrist has been with us from the beginning, always seeking to overthrow the Kingdom of God. There have been several forerunners. Does such a figure operate on the world stage at the moment? I don’t know. I try not to make conjectures about specific personalities because there is a danger in this: we can become sidetracked from our real task, which is the timeless call to an overarching vigilance. Whenever we say, ‘Aha! There he is at last! So and so has got to be the Man of Sin!’ we risk mistaking a precursor of Antichrist or an assistant of Antichrist for the actual one. The real Antichrist may be quietly operating behind the scenes and rising slowly to prominence as an apparently benevolent figure capable of deceiving the whole world.
23) Do you think that an alliance between political forces and religious forces is possible? If so, could they be used by the Antichrist in shaping a New World Order that he would control?
O’Brien: Yes, an alliance between power politics and the new Gnosticism is not only possible, it is already active among us. It is a potent combination, which the Antichrist would use as a powerful tool for manipulating the consciousness of the people of the world toward his own ends.
24) Is China a factor that could be used by the Antichrist to further undermine what is left of Christian civilization as the West becomes increasingly secularized?
O’Brien: The increasing power of atheistic China and the secularization of the West are indeed elements of the emerging configuration of the final battle between good and evil. However, no single element will be decisive. It should be remembered that in the underground Church in China there are probably more genuine believers in Christ than in all of North America and Europe. Even the Communist Party of China admits that there are between 80 and 100 million underground Christians. They too are a factor in the emerging world configuration, and perhaps a crucial one. We really must avoid simplistic scenarios of the future. The final struggle between the Church and anti-Church, the Gospel and anti-Gospel, will engage every aspect of human life. No single element of the present situation is by itself the sole cause of the tribulation. Corrupt Western politics, the spread of pseudo-Christianity, the rise of occult movements, and other cultural, social, and spiritual developments are parts of a complex shift in the consciousness of modern man, making him more vulnerable to the Man of Sin, who when he appears will offer himself as the new ‘Savior.’ Moral degeneration and strategic blows combined will contribute to the ‘strong delusion’ that St. Paul speaks about (2 Thessalonians 2: 1-12).
25) Do you really think this could happen in the democratic nations?
O’Brien: The erosion of the sovereignty of democratic nations is proceeding very swiftly. Governments no longer seem accountable to their peoples, who by and large prefer security and comfort to freedom and responsibility. Many governments have become agents of social engineering. For example, in my homeland the Canadian Supreme Court has become a small ruling oligarchy that promotes the doctrines of secular humanism. That is part of a growing trend throughout the Western world. Make no mistake about it, we are in the midst of a relentless, top-down social revolution. It has become possible only because the populace as a whole have embraced sin and error and thus no longer have the tools of discernment and little will to resist the revolution.
26) Is Satan’s power equal to God’s? If God is greater, why does evil continue to spread in the world?
O’Brien: God’s power is infinitely greater than Satan’s. The enemy is no more than a rebel angel, though it must be remembered that he was considered to be one of the greatest angels. God permits Satan to test us. This is the foundation of the whole field known as spiritual combat or spiritual warfare. God never wills direct evil, but his permissive will allows the adversary to tempt us, just as he allowed the suffering and death of his Son. When Christ resurrected from the dead, God showed us (among other things) that no matter what Satan does, God is always ahead of him, always seeking to bring a greater good out of the enemy’s apparent little victories. But the primary battle zone is the human will. Because God always respects the freedom of the will, he will neither force us to do good nor to abandon evil choices. He sends us grace and truth, but he does not violate our will. It is Satan who seeks to violate the integrity of the human person. In this war zone we will experience trials, but God knows they are instructive for us, for they reveal the nature of the adversary to us, and our own need for salvation and maturing in faith.
27) How can a person living in our times resist the Antichrist?
O’Brien: By embracing the whole life of Christ, living fully in the Church which he established as his instrument in history, by earnest prayer for spiritual protection, for wisdom, for discernment of spirits, and by developing an appetite for truth, by resisting the nearly overwhelming power of secular culture. This question demands a whole world of answers—and the whole life in Christ.
28) Do you believe that only the Catholic Church will be able to resist the deceptions of the Antichrist?
O’Brien: Yes, I believe so. Of course there are sincere disciples of Jesus in all the Christian churches, people who seek to live the Gospels without compromise. But the Catholic Church offers the whole armor of God, the Sacraments, and two thousand years of discernment of spirits. This is a question that properly needs a book-length answer, but let me at least say this: If the compromises of the Faith evident now in some of the ‘particular churches,’ both Catholic and non-Catholic, are any indication, we will experience some rough and confusing times ahead. Every Christian will be put to the test. Yet the universal Church under Peter will prevail, though it may become much smaller than it is now.
29) To whom is Count Smokrev referring when he speaks of ‘the scarlet woman’?
O’Brien: Smokrev is referring to a figure in the Book of Revelation who represents the city that drinks the blood of the prophets, an ally of the Antichrist. Smokrev is thus declaring his alliance with the anti-Church.
30) In the banquet hosted by the President, a Buddhist monk looks uncomfortable. What did you mean by this? Are you implying that Buddhism is a path to God?
O’Brien: A Buddhist monk, like anyone else living an ascetic life, would feel uncomfortable at an opulent banquet among the rich and powerful of the earth. He would be as uncomfortable in a materialist hedonist environment as a Christian monk. It means no more than this. It certainly does not mean to imply that all religions are equally valid paths to God.
31) Do you think that in recent years there have been positive developments in ecumenism?
O’Brien: I think there have been a few genuine steps in authentic dialogue between the churches. However there have also been major setbacks, in the midst of continuing confusion and misunderstanding. I believe that those who pray every article of the Creed with full assent to these articles is a follower of Christ. Some of the characters in my novels are Protestants whose lives exhibit Gospel living, such as the beatitudes. However, our doctrinal differences are real, and not to be minimized in a kind of false Irenicism. Now is the time for all who follow Jesus to love one another and to pray for one another. Father Elijah is a story that deals primarily with the troubles within our own household of the Catholic Church, an effort to demonstrate how these can weaken our struggle against the Antichrist. See also John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, his definitive teaching on ecumenism. Sadly, he has been ignored by liberal middle-management theologians and clerics in some circles, people who tend to promote false Irenicism.
32) You describe the Pope as surrounded by enemies. Are things in the Vatican really as bad as all that?
O’Brien: If you recall that scene in the novel, ‘surrounded by enemies’ is an expression of Billy’s in quotation marks. Numerically speaking, the Pope is not surrounded by enemies. In that same scene, however, there is another quote: ‘It only takes one Judas.’ There are Judases at work in the Church presently. Do they surround the Pope? No. The statement was meant as hyperbole in order to underline a point. John Paul II’s enemies act largely in a covert fashion, though some are becoming increasingly bold in their public statements. They are a minority in the Vatican, but they are indeed there. This is a fact well reported by Bishops who love the Pope and have witnessed the acts of betrayal, the subterfuge, and the insults committed against him by cardinals and bishops who are opposed to him. One wonders if such men have any faith at all. Though I think they are few in number, they enjoy plenty of hearing in the secular press and the liberal Catholic press, which portray such men as heroes, as open minded men of the future.
33) Why did you include in the novel the sub-plot of Smith, the editor of a Catholic newspaper?
O’Brien: Fr. Smith’s part in the novel underlines the internal battle going on in the Church, the subversive, dishonest, and manipulative psychology of Modernists who have seized many positions of influence in the particular churches, especially in Western Europe and North America. It is important to the story because the underminers often take over the genuinely Catholic press and bend it to their purposes. And thus disinformation and disordered ecclesiology aids the spread of ignorance, fosters vulnerability to false shepherds—and to the spirit of apostasy. Smith’s ordeal is actually a compound of what happened to two Catholic editors, both of whom told me their stories. In the interests of charity and to prevent scandal, I would rather refrain from mentioning the names and details. The sabotaging of the dissemination of truth, the modernist Catholic journalist’s consistent policy of sidetracking the preaching of our chief apostle, is a key part of the weakening of the Church. It is occurring precisely at the moment of history when we need to be unified, properly formed, and strong in Faith.
34) Fr. Elijah’s love of Anna is a significant part of the story, but isn’t it disrespectful to a priest to show him being tempted by sexual attraction?
O’Brien: Disrespectful? Not in the least. Fr. Elijah is a fully human man. He is tempted not so much by sin as by romanticism which could lead to sin. He recognizes this and defends himself from it, yet circumstances lead him back into contact with Anna. God allows it to reveal to Fr. Elijah his vulnerability, shows him how his unresolved wounds and his loneliness can become areas where the adversary will distract him from his mission. In the end he resists, while at the same time affirming Anna’s dignity as a person and working for her conversion. Thus God has brought a good out of what might have become an occasion of sin. Remember, Christ was tempted also. He did not sin. In a religious novel it is important to ensure that the central character is not merely a cardboard pious figure, invulnerable to sin, too remote from the daily struggles of ordinary men for the reader to identify with. The effectiveness of what is imparted through Fr. Elijah’s spiritual struggle depends on whether or not he is a believable character.
35) Why do you show the President being possessed toward the end of the novel, though there are no indications earlier in the novel that he is steeped in evil?
O’Brien: There are no earlier concrete incidents demonstrating that the President is involved in Satanic affiliations. This is deliberate. He is presented as a man with a veneer that has been carefully cultivated for decades. Yet beneath the public mask is a long apprenticeship in evil, which is revealed only toward the end of the tale when we learn that he approved, and was present at, the torture and death of Stefano Benedetti many years before. One of the key themes of the novel is that even great evil can masquerade as a kind of natural moral virtue.
36) Why didn’t you spell out for the reader whether or not the President repented during that final scene on Capri, when he was given an illumination of conscience? And why didn’t Fr. Elijah stay to help him?
O’Brien: In a novel it is not only unnecessary but counterproductive to over-explain and justify each detail. In fact such an approach would weaken the flow of the narrative. A certain amount of mystery can be left to the reader’s imagination. But to answer your question: the assumption behind the scene is that the President will be left free to make a choice. Having been delivered of diabolic possession, he can then choose to open himself to it again or to make a radical break with his past. The holy angels would be at his side to combat the evil spirits seeking to overwhelm him. Fr. Elijah is taken away by the angel-guide at this point because he has done what he could, is still a hunted man, and the President’s decision remains uncertain. In this fictional ‘apocalypse’ God has given the President a final grace, all that he needs to make the right choice. Respecting the freedom of the human will, Divine providence permits him to reject this grace for the fullfilment of prophecy.
37) Have you personally witnessed conversions and exorcisims?
O’Brien: I have witnessed many conversions, no exorcisims (though I have read accounts of them). I have witnessed deliverance from evil spirits who were harassing or temporarily infesting a person. The deliverance came through ordinary prayer and fasting, and the Sacrament of Confession, not through an official exorcism.
38) Do you personally have an unusual gift for discerning evil?
O’Brien: Nothing beyond what should be the spiritual gift of every baptised believer. My wife and I ask the Lord daily for the grace of discernment of spirits, for what we call our ‘inner barometer’ or ‘radar,’ a rather quiet, undramatic interior sense of the rightness or wrongness of certain chocies that come before us, for example, the cultural material that enters our home. Whenever in the past I have ignored that ‘still small voice’ I have regretted it. Whenever I have paid attention to it, I have later learned how right it was to do so. But this should be a normal part of a Christian’s life. I’m in no way extraordinary. I strive to live fully my faith in Jesus, the complete life of the Catholic Church. Whatever gifts I have been given have been bestowed by God and faithfully nurtured by my Church.
I should emphasize here a truth that is too easily forgotten: The gifts God gives to members of the Body of Christ are just that—gifts, not possessions. They are for the service of others and subservient to the hierarchy of Truth. The major challenge for an educated thinking Christian is to recognize in himself the temptations to intellectual pride. Pride is the root sin in human nature, and we must be on guard against it in its myriad manifestations. Spiritual pride is the most dangerous form of pride. Aberrations can subtly enter into the use of one’s gifts when they are claimed as one’s own, whenever egoism, subjectivity, and willfulness seep into one’s thinking and take over. This usually occurs when a person has become his own highest authoritty, when he does not listen to the objective voice of the Church and its large body of teachings, tested and proven over millennia, including its wisdom about spiritual realities.
39) Fr. Elijah is called by God to confront the Antichrist. He has been given unusual spiritual gifts. But how can an ordinary Christian resist the Antichrist?
O’Brien: I believe that no Christian is ordinary. We are all called to resist the Antichrist, and for most of us this means resisting the spirit of Antichrist in whatever way it invades our lives. We must ask God to develop in us the gifts of spiritual discernment and docility to the Holy Spirit. The need for this has never been as urgent as it is now, perhaps not since the first three centuries of the Christian era, when the Church was dealing with various heresies and the inroads made into the household of the Faith by Gnosticism. We are once again living in a Gnostic age, ranging from cold rationalist Gnosticism to hot pagan Gnosticism. Even so-called ‘autonomous Christianity’ can be a kind of Gnostic path, in which the ‘knower’ places himself, consciously or subconsciously, above all spiritual authority. ‘I will decide what God really meant by that!’ the autonomous Christian declares. I believe that this position stems from a root fear of any authority exterior to the self. When a person functions in this way, he isolates himself in a personal field of subjectivity, regardless of how intelligent he may be or how many other people he finds agreeing with his opinions. But the dangers in this are very high, because no one on this earth is invulnerable to subjectivity and clouded motivation. (see Genesis, where Satan seduces mankind by arguing for a ‘nuanced’ theological interpretation of the divine word.) It’s very much the disease of our times, an era saturated with mistrust and the drive to reward the ‘sovereign self’ at every turn.
40) How can a person discern between true and false visions?
O’Brien: There are some excellent books on the subject. Two come to mind as especially helpful: The Spiritual Combat by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli and The Still Small Voice by Fr. Benedict Groeschel. A number of the saints have written on the subject as well. As a thumbnail principle, all of them would agree that every spiritual ‘word’ from the realm of the supernatural (in whatever form it takes, including the visual) must be measured against Scripture and the teachings of the Church. Membership in a body of believers who can assist in the discernment is also very important. We are all subjective creatures. Thus, we have a fundamental need for exterior checks and balances.
41) Why do you give Mary the Mother of Christ such a prominent role in the story?
O’Brien: In Revelation 12, St. John gives us the image of the ‘Woman Clothed with the Sun’ in a passage that has a multidimensional meaning, connected to Genesis 3:15. Mary bore Christ in her womb, and she did so as more than just a necessary instrument for his birth. In the incarnational universe God chose to give the infant Jesus to this woman not only to bear in her womb, but to raise to manhood, to form him in all his humanity from conception to the moment he began his public ministry. Jesus was fully divine and also fully human. He developed as all human children do—though without original sin, yet he was tempted as all men are. God chose this woman and formed her for the unique role as mother of Christ. Is it so far-fetched to think she might have a role in the Church? She was greatly revered by the apostles and the early Church Fathers who were disciples of the first apostles. Her role was not administrative, academic, or canonically instituted in the early Church—she was simply the Mother, and no one who felt her presence and benefited by her role needed to question it. Did her role end on the day of her death?
I believe, and the Church also believes, that she has been given a specific ongoing role by the Father that will become more and more apparent as we reach the definitive climax in salvation history. In order to grasp the Father’s intentions in giving us the Mother of God, we must be willing to listen without a priori prejudices, with an open heart, with prayer. We must see farther and deeper than is customary with us, in an age which is ever pushing human consciousness down into a spiritual Flatland. We are freed from this mental and spiritual ghetto only by grace—by asking for the grace to see the immensity of his Kingdom with eyes cleansed of historical baggage and 500 years of conflict and division. If the whole Body of Christ shares in the work of redemption in a subsidiary sense, should we exclude his mother from this work?
42) Is there such a place as the House of the Holy Virgin near Ephesus?
O’Brien: Yes, it’s called Panaya Kapulu. It’s an official shrine and pilgrimage site of the Catholic Church near the Roman ruins of Ephesus in Turkey. The shrine is as described in the book. The exact site of the burial cave, however, is an imaginative reconstruction, though the entire scene of the burial and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in a nearby cave is contained in the visions of Blessed Anna Catherine Emmerich, a stigmatist, whose visions led to the rediscovery of the ancient shrine of the House of the Virgin near Ephesus in the 19th century.
43) Relics play a role in your novel Fr. Elijah. Isn’t the use of relics superstition?
O’Brien: No, it only superficially resembles superstition. Relics play a constant role of blessing in the history of our Christian Faith, from the beginning of the ministries of Peter and Paul. Human nature being what it is, practically anything can become an object of superstition in this world. There are people who carry a Bible around like a lucky charm but never read it, never pray with the living word of scripture. Others misquote it badly. Does this mean we should banish scripture from the life of the Church because some people abuse it? Of course not. By the same token, we have two thousand years of tradition regarding the proper use of relics, a vast treasury of experience, the miracles God has performed through the relics of the saints. Relics are signs, not amulets. The Catholic vision of reality sees the universe as incarnational, suffused with signs and words from the Living Word. All creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth. Everything is to be restored in Christ and offered to the Father, every created thing speaks of him, including objects directly associated with Christ and his saints. In Acts 19: 11-12 we find an example of the early Church’s use of relics, a practice that has continued uninterrupted until our present age, often confirmed by miraculous healings.
Early Church Fathers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom venerated relics and encouraged the veneration of them as an aid to faith and an avenue of grace. The bones of St. Polycarp, for example, were collected by the faithful after he was burned to death and were venerated. In his Confessions, St. Augustine relates a number of stories of physical cures at the tombs of martyrs (one might say that a tomb is a large reliquary). See also 2 Kings 13:20-21. It goes without saying that proper catechesis is always needed in the use of relics (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the index heading ‘sacramentals’). The faithful must be properly instructed in the truly Christian concept of sign and sacrament. Both are exterior signs of a living reality of grace. The object itself has no power. The power is entirely the Lord’s, dispensed either directly or through the media of sacred symbols.
44) Before Fr. Elijah’s vision, so similar to the prophet Elijah’s in the cave, he experiences a terrible test of faith which seems so dark it even appears he has lost faith. Why did you include this in the story?
O’Brien: Fr. Elijah does not so much lose his faith, as he loses his bearings. His confidence in God and in himself is radically shaken during a brief wrestling match in the darkness—a darkness both literal and interior. This severe test is part of the ‘dark night of the soul’ a classic purifying stage in the mystical life, when everything that is not of God within us (often hidden from our own eyes) is burned away. It is an increase of light, but the soul feels it only as a deepening darkness. This is a stage for very advanced souls. You can read about it in the lives of the great Christian mystics, most famously in the Carmelite spirituality of St. John of the Cross. Fr. Elijah is a Carmelite.
45) Why did you make such a simple person as ‘Brother Ass,’ who is almost a simpleton, one of the two witnesses against the Antichrist?
O’Brien: Because of his absolute poverty of spirit. He has become as a little child, and this is why he can receive what Heaven wishes to show him, and to show the Church. Fr. Elijah’s more developed intellect and complex process of discernment are a necessary complement to Brother Enoch’s unquestioning openness. Combined, they are like two eyes that provide depth perception. In my fictional scenario both Brother Enoch (formerly Brother Ass) and Fr. Elijah have been given the spirit of the two witnesses (Revelation 11), and so it’s not really their own qualities that are brought against the Antichrist. It is Christ himself, living within two very different servants of God, who confronts the enemy. Grace building on nature, human nature cooperating with grace.
46) Why did you end the novel as Fr. Elijah and Brother Enoch approach Jerusalem, before they even confront the Antichrist? It seems to leave the reader dangling with unanswered questions.
O’Brien: I did not want the reader to close the book thinking he had ‘got’ it, taking away with him a neat package, thinking he’d absorbed another prediction to add to the many fortune-telling packages swarming the Christian world these days. My primary purpose was to raise in the reader’s mind absolutely essential questions, not to feed a false ‘Christian Gnosticism,’ which is a contradiction in terms. I wanted to direct the reader back to our present times with these questions in his mind. By leaving the ending in suspense, I ask the reader to return to reality with new awareness. In the first printing of the book, the printer inadvertently deleted the very last page, which is a transcript of the passages of Revelation about the two witnesses. For readers of that edition, the story ended rather abruptly. Later printings reinserted it. These passages take up the tale where my fiction ends.
47) Are there real people like Fr. Elijah and Brother Enoch in the world today?
O’Brien: I believe there are. They are unknown, hidden. From time to time I meet people who embody aspects of this calling. Not all are hidden, however, and I think of Pope John Paul II in this regard. Those who take time to carefully read his writings will find a truly prophetic teacher. It is a sign of the times that both the secular press and the liberal Christian press (the liberal Catholics being the most odious in this regard) tend to truncate his writings, take them out of context, and often omit the most urgent aspects of them. Our chief pastor under Christ is frequently blocked by representatives of the local churches. Canada and Holland have been particularly bad examples of this selective ‘Catholic’ journalism, which does what it does so pleasantly and without overt revolt, making it harder for people to realize what is happening. The good news is that such journalism is dying on the vine, while at the same time many new orthodox Catholic magazines and media outlets are growing in number and fruitfulness.
Regarding figures similar to Fr. Elijah: During the year after the novel was published I was surprised to receive letters from around the world asking if I had based my fictional character on Fr. Elias (Elijah) Friedman, a Carmelite priest who lived at the monastery on Mt. Karmel in Israel. I had never heard of the man, had not even known for certain if there was a Carmelite monastery on the mountain above Haifa. Curiously, many of the details of his life parallel my fictional Fr. Elijah. He was a convert from Judaism, a poet, a medical doctor, and the founder of an international movement called the Association of Hebrew Catholics, which is thoroughly orthodox, loyal to the Pope and the teachings of the Church. One of the most important aspects in his writings is his assertion that we are living in the midst of the Great Apostasy mentioned in 2 Thessalonians, and that after the ‘apostasy of the Gentiles’ the Jewish people will come into the full revelation of the New Covenant. I corresponded with Fr. Friedman after that. In one of his letters he quipped with some humor that he had not yet received any calls from the Vatican to undertake a mission of the nature I describe in the novel. Sadly, he died a few years ago, in his eighties.
Whether or not there are presently any figures in the Church who have been called to do what my fictional character does in the story, I simply don’t know. But clearly, the spirit of Antichrist is very much with us and spreading. At the same time the Church is being blessed with extraordinary graces. A new springtime of Faith has begun, yet as it grows it will not be without trials and perhaps severe tribulations. Whether or not we are living in the time of the final Great Tribulation, I do not know. Yet there are numerous apocalyptic elements in our present situation that are unprecedented in scope and nature. Thus, our call is to stay awake and watch with particular vigilance, for we do not know the day or the hour when the Son of Man will return.