The signs of our times

“When it is evening, you say, ‘Tomorrow there will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning you say, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (Matthew 16:2-3)

The dramatic events that mark our history interpellate people and society in depth about the human condition: cosmic catastrophes (earthquakes, epidemics) or political events (revolutions, wars, genocides). And of couse questions arise: why? how? Whose fault was it? At the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, the Great Lisbon earthquake which destroyed Lisbon (Saturday, 1 November, 1755 on the Feast of All Saints, at around 09:40 local time) had offered up to noted writer-philosopher Voltaire [used the earthquake in Candide and in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne] and other philosophers the opportunity to launch these great critical questions, which still resonate after the 1941 שׁוֹאָה Shoah also known as the Holocaust, and in the 1980s the Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the 津波 tsunamis that ensued and of course not forgetting our current Orthocoronavirinae global pandemic which first surfaced on December 31, 2019. 

Both the Jewish and then the Christian faiths have always taken on the historical questions of why? How? Whose fault was it? How do we stop it happening again, and its various interpretations, Christ himself was one day asked about the meaning of a catastrophe (the collapse of the Tower of Siloam in Jerusalem’s old city) and an incomprehensible political-religious event (the massacre by Pilate of some devout Galileans who were offering ritual sacrifices, Luke 13:1-5). The parable of meteorology used by Jesus is inscribed precisely in this question: of what are the times a sign?

Times according to Holy Scripture

The meaning of forecasting opens up to the second meaning, that of time, that of the calendar, duration. It is a time of ‘tomorrow’s’, between that of yesterday, of history, and that of the future. The biblical texts place us within a period that has a meaning, a history that has both a beginning and an end: there have been ‘first days’, and there will be ‘latter days.’ This story extends to us throughout time and subsequent generations, those of ‘ancient times,’ and we are currently on our way toward ‘new times.’ This story, which the Bible tells us, is that of a Covenant between God and humanity: a tumultuous story of dissent and recurrences. We keep the memories of those great witnesses of covenants: the patriarchs Abraham and his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, also named Israel, and of the prophets Adam the first man, Enoch, Noah, Ruth, Moses and other numerous prophets.

In this reading, the notion of καιρός kairòs “right, critical, or opportune moment” stands out: a term that always designates a present, a decisive “now” that resounds from yesterday to today. The great moments of the ancient covenant revolve around Easter — the Exodus, the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt ca. 1300 BC — announcing it or repeating it and, similarly, a decisive moment for Christians in the Passover [פֶּסַח Pesach] when Jesus was crucified as the Passover Lamb, which takes place during his passion, death and resurrection, and the announcement of his return.

This is the conceptualisation of the times that the parable of Jesus evokes: the terrestrial realities, lived, invite us to understand those of the Kingdom of God which is coming and therefore calls us to be vigilant and to convert.

Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go!

Ecclesial readings

Reading social current events is a relatively modern tradition, but well established within the Church. Each encyclical of her social doctrine arises from the reading of events of a social and cultural dimension that mark the times and that some Christians faced even before the ecclesial authorities were able to intervene.

Allow me to provide some examples. Attention to ‘new realities’ is found in the detailed passages of the individual encyclicals. For the first of these — accurately entitled by Pope Leo XIII Rerum novarum —May 15, 1891,— on the ‘Condition of the Working Classes” in the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and in the changed relations between masters and workmen; in the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses. (RN, № 1). Forty years later, Pope Pius XI with Quadragesimo anno, on the ‘Reconstruction of the social order’—(May 15,  1931) reinterprets the positive fruits of this reading and specifies it in a thematic way, but reveals new events: the hegemony of economic power, socialist and communist ideologies, the de-christianisation of customs (QA, § 113).

Similarly, in Pope John XXIII Mater et magistra on ‘Christianity and Social Progress’ (May 15, 1961) the Pope underlines the most recent social changes: scientific, technical (in particular the use of nuclear energy), social, political innovations, especially on the international level, and notes, judging them favourably , events such as disarmament, human rights, development. Finally, it is worth mentioning the famous affirmation of Paul VI in the encyclical Populorum progressio on ‘the development of peoples’ (March 26, 1967): “he social question ties all men together, in every part of the world’ (PP, № 3).

The snapshots of this series historically situated within ‘our times’ continues, especially on the occasion of anniversaries, such as Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter to Cardinal Maurice Roy entitled Octogesima adveniens (May 14, 1971); even more explicitly with the practically ten-year encyclical letters of John Paul II: Laborem exercens (September 14, 1981), Sollicitudo rei socialis (December 30, 1987, 20th anniversary of Populorum progressio), Centesimus annus (May 1, 1991). Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate (June 29, 2009) is explicitly inscribed in this fidelity to Populorum progressio (chap. I). The Catholic Church lives, and is aware of it, situated in human history: hers is the continuity of attention in the newness of situations.

The expression ‘signs of the times’, popularised by John XXIII during the Second Vatican Council, appears in the decree on the ministry and priestly life (Presbyterorum ordinis (December 7, 1965) § 9, and at the beginning of Gaudium et spes (December 7, 1965): “To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.” (GS, № 4). Further on, a passage explains what this spiritual procedure consists of: “The People of God believes that it is led by the Lord’s Spirit, Who fills the earth. Motivated by this faith, it labours to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People” (GS, № 11). In summary: an invitation to discern in the Holy Spirit, with a positive discernment and not only in terms of deplore.

Reading the times, how to read our time

The signs are to be observed not ‘in heaven,’ but in our world, in the all human realities. The approach to forecasting indicates that it concern a major part of humanity, if not all of the inhabitants of the earth, whatever the case of social realities may be. It is a question of looking up and scrutinising a reality that is both daily and new, and to interpret it. In all these human realities, understood in all of their depth, being also bearers of existential questions, the Christian is invited to recognize the signs of divine reality, that is, of God’s plan for humanity, from its origins to its end, evolving from current events. They are signs of the Kingdom of God, the final (eschatological) reality, but taking place: Jesus announces that it ‘is near.’ God’s plan in human history was announced by the prophets and made unquestionable by the advent of Jesus Christ, who has invited us to commit ourselves to it wholeheartedly.

To recognize the signs of the times it is necessary to believe and understand that it is the same and only Spirit of God who works within the universe, within history and within the hearts of men. The presupposition of a proper journey of faith is a convergence between the subjectivity of the observers who ask questions and the objectivity of the signs.

Who discerns the signs? Basically, the one who proceeds on a journey of faith, that is to say the subject touched in his conscience and animated by the Holy Spirit. Yet, according to the Second Vatican Council, it is at the same time also the Church, as a collaborative participant, whom truly discerns the signs. This point requires an explanation. To say ‘Church’ is not only designating the authorities recognised within it, but also the people of God, individuals and whole communities. The charism of discernment must never be identified with that of authority, it is rather that of the prophecy of Joel which the Apostle Peter recalled: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your young men shall see visions,  and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17).

We propose some figures of companions of faith to be privileged in this dialogue which takes place within the Church under the affects of the Spirit. First of all, the humble and the little ones: those whom Christ recognized with joy who saw what was hidden from the wise and learned. And again, conforming to with the Beatitudes, the pure of heart, those thirsty for justice and the merciful, those who are brought before the courts in the name of Christ: beginning with the Apostles, throughout the centuries and even today, they have been and are always numerous. Jesus placed them in the lineage of true prophets. The power of their word before the judges is surprising for everyone and especially for the people of God. The communities, groups and movements that gather in the name of the Gospel, and that help each other to grow in faith, hope and charity in the their life. Sometimes ‘great voices’ that resound in the hearts of many, ‘prophetic’ voices. Finally, the bishops and pastors, the leaders of the communities in their vital relations with all these fellow believers.

The concrete elaboration of the texts of the social doctrine of the Church does not solely involve the church hierarchy, but also the determination of socially committed Christians, the work of social research and the reflections of institutions, observers, theologians and philosophers, all engaged in a extensive dialogue.

But are there men and women who, without belonging visibly to the Church, whom must be taken into consideration within this discernment? Yes, without any doubt: they are “men of good will,” those shepherds in vigil to whom the Lord announces his peace, and those ‘Magi who came from the East’ who saw “a star rise.” The Council affirmed this in the passage quoted above: “the whole man with regard for the full range of his material needs and the demands of his intellectual, moral, spiritual, and religious life; this applies to every man whatsoever and to every group of men, of every race and of every part of the world. Consequently, economic activity is to be carried on according to its own methods and laws within the limits of the moral order, “so that God’s plan for mankind may be realised.” (GS, § 1 № 64.)

These signs appeal to human conscience, stimulate it to good, give rise to paths of conversion (transformation) of hearts.

Places to observe

Creation in all of its beauty, greatness and fragility (represented by this wonderful painting by Gill Bustamante © Act of Creation)

In the beginning, we observe creation in all of its beauty, greatness and fragility. Today it appears to us as changeable, fragile and threatened by humanity itself, creation has a shared history with humanity, whom now at long last has begun to feel a sense of anxiety and a sense of responsibility towards creation. Isn’t ecological awareness also a ‘sign of the times?’ Is  ‘human nature’ threatened by the claims to improve it?

The events must be observed, not only the catastrophes that have led to the discovery of human weakness and the need for salvation. At the time of the Council, in line with the social encyclicals, a more optimistic gaze focused on some cultural and social events: the development of international institutions for peace and justice, the end of the colonial era, the emancipation of women. A certain utopia ran through the Church. Today this occurs less and less and we are aware of the ‘threats’ of the situation, inherent especially in the globalisation of our planet and in biomedicine. But can realism feasibly block any attempt at discernment? ‘Do not be afraid,’ John Paul II echoed. Catastrophism or excessive admiration are the pitfalls which tend to hinder an accurate understanding of the signs of the times. The Bible and the Church’s social teaching are not equivalent to an orbuculum (crystal ball) of a fortune teller, and theology itself can run the risks of going astray in oversimplified interpretations of liberation or punishment.

Gaudium et spes invited us to consider three realities in which an appeal is heard: happenings, needs (values) and desires (cf. GS, № 11). Values ​​are what touches the moral conscience and which is shared with others, determining the union between men at the level of the best that is in them: for example, respect for every man in his dignity. The requests are placed, like values, in the conscience, but in the form of emptiness: deep dissatisfactions and protests in the face of injustice or in the face of the void of meaning. They create active social forces. Values ​​and requests express judgments. Events, especially political ones, are more difficult to evaluate, as they mix good and evil. But the term points to the unexpected, and responds to Christ’s repeated call for “vigilance” regarding the Kingdom that will come ‘like a thief in the night.’

Interrogatives that enable a discernment of the signs

In participants who read the signs, what is their level of freedom? Reading the sign implies a call, and not ideological coercion; an increase in faith, hope and charity and an active commitment, without fear of social intervention. Anyone who is able to recognise an inducement to commit one’s freedom in an event so as to promote greater justice or truth, could gain sight of a particle of the light of Jesus Christ’s Spirit within it.

Among the participants who observe the signs, what is the message? In the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, gatherings and relations are observed between those who have been touched by the ‘Spirit.’ When such encounters and communities of discernment develop in or around the Church, this in turn constitutes a sign.

Starting from the very reality of what expresses a ‘meaning,’ it is necessary to refer to various criteria. First of all, the truthfulness of a sign is recognized in its human depth. Then in its similarity with an event reported in Sacred Scripture as a sign. This is also true and above all when this sign appears scandalous in the eyes of the world, such as the crucifixion of Jesus or the death of the martyrs. The sign is called ‘of the times,’ that is, of the lived instant, like meteorology and history: a sign appears and can disappear, like a flash or the star of the Magi. But it travels from East to West, and its roots remain in the memory of those who are yet to come.

An object of astonishment, scandal or admiration, the signs of the times do not call for simple aesthetic contemplation. They involve a summon’s that must be answered, and which occasionally indicate the whereabouts of the answer. To answer means to act. And those who respond become themselves sign’s for others. The ‘sign of Jonah’ to whom Jesus refers those who ask him for a sign from heaven, is not comprised in the fact that the prophet Jonah stepped out of the sea monster alive, but in the fact that the inhabitants of Nineveh changed their lives because they gave ear to what Jonah had to say.

The sign of Christ’s Resurrection is not comprised in the fact that he arrived on the clouds of heaven, but in the fact that men and women are converted to His call, committing their lives to the love of God and their brothers and sisters.

Encyclicals mentioned

Rerum Novarum

Quadragesimo Anno

Mater et Magistra

Popolorum Progressio

Octagesima Adveniens

Laborem Exercens

Sollicitudo rei socialis

Centesimus Annus

Caritas in veritate

Presbyterorum ordinis

Gaudium et Spes