PROPHECY AND THE VATICAN
Often the term “prophecy” is used to refer to a divinely (or supernaturally) inspired prediction about some future happening. In the Bible, however, the most important role of the prophet was to call the people to conversion. He would recall the covenant that the Lord had made with the people of Israel, would point out how far the people had strayed from their relationship with the Lord, and would demand repentance and conversion. The prophet would have a particular responsibility to stand up to the king, his courtiers and the priests who served in the royal sanctuaries.
When the Lord calls Jeremiah, he explicitly mentions this role of standing up to the powers that be:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 5,10)
In what way is Pope Francis being prophetic in our time?
Whenever we read Sacred Scripture, it should have a prophetic influence on our lives, in the aforementioned sense of calling us to repentance, inspiring us to deeper conversion, prompting in us sorrow for our faults and omissions. We don’t read Sacred Scripture in order to affirm our mediocre lifestyles or justify our current behaviour. We must allow Scripture to penetrate into the murky area of our lives and bring the light of Christ to every area of our existence.
The Church has a similar prophetic role. Someone might wonder, then, if Pope Francis is failing in his responsibility to provide the principal prophetic Catholic voice for the modern world? At a meeting in the Vatican, he seemed to affirm Joe Biden in his continuing reception of Holy Communion while simultaneously supporting abortion. At another meeting in the Vatican, he told a homosexual man that “God made you like this”. The pope has remained largely silent in the face of the wholesale undermining of Church teaching on marriage and sexuality by the German synodal way. So far, Francis has not responded to the assertion by Cardinal Hollerich that Church teaching on homosexuality is wrong.
If Pope Francis has somewhat failed in his duty to the truth in cases like these, it is nevertheless the case that in other areas he has made consistent and determined prophetic stands. His criticism of the clericalism and lack of charity among some sectors of the curia is justified. He has called repeatedly for the developed countries to tackle the causes of third world poverty and famine. He has raised the plight of refugees and the victims of human trafficking to a profile that they would not have had otherwise. In all of these matters, people have been moved by the heartfelt and sincere manner of his anxiety for the underprivileged.
In areas where Francis has failed, others have risen to the task
It is fair to say that many Catholics are dissatisfied with the failure of Pope Francis to provide clarity in matters of doctrine, such as the issues raised by Cardinal Hollerich. Indeed, if Cardinal Hollerich is right that Church teaching on homosexuality is wrong, then this would pull the rug from under the entire Catholic understanding of marriage. Fortunately, however, other Catholics have stepped up to the plate and taken prophetic stands, outlining a correct exposition of Catholic doctrine in a manner that does not cower before the currents of culture and the spirit of the times. This excellent article from Jonathan Liedl in the National Catholic Register is one such example. We could say, I suppose, that Pope Francis is being supported in his prophetic role by people like Jonathan Liedl. Francis defends the poor and the underprivileged, whilst writers like Jonathan defend the integrity of doctrine. Both types of prophetic activity are essential in the Church. Francis speaks prophetically to those within the Church who lose sight of Christ’s call to prioritize the poor and marginalised, whilst Catholic figures elsewhere speak prophetically to the culture of death that has the West in its grip.
Another prophet in the Vatican
Every week, a priest from the diocese of Rome, Fr Fabio Rosini, gives a ten minute homily on Vatican Radio for the following Sunday’s Gospel. Last week, his homily was on prophecy. The main point of his homily was that, when we read God’s word, we should come to an awareness of our own shortcomings and be motivated to conform ourselves to God. The prophetic role of Scripture, thus, is to challenge me. Once I have drunk in God’s word, then I can go out and be a prophetic voice in the world for others.
Fr Rosini reflected on how, in the first reading, Isaiah expresses his sense of inadequacy before the holiness of God. Isaiah describes himself as a man of impure lips who dwells among a people of impure lips. How can this confrontation between the holiness of God and our sinfulness be resolved? The natural reaction when we experience the greatness, power and holiness of God, is to run away. In the Gospel, in fact, Peter says, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man”. In truth, no human being, once he has experienced the wonder and love of God, could consider himself to be worthy to stand in his presence.
Our call to mission only follows our reception of the word of God
In the Gospel, Jesus has just spoken to the people from Peter’s boat. Thus Peter too has listened to the word of God. Every call to mission (which is what is just about to happen to Peter) only occurs after we have listened to God’s word. It does not originate in our own desires but only after we have been visited from outside by the word of God in some form. Then Jesus makes a strange request: he asks Peter to go back to his own habitual activity. Peter admits that he had been fishing all night without result, but upon Jesus’ word he throws out the nets. This is typical of Peter. Despite his tiredness, despite failure, despite the apparent futility of the act, he still takes Christ at his word. Here we have a paradigmatic act of faith: to move from reliance on one’s own capacities and beliefs to reliance on the one in whom we place our trust. The resultant catch of fish is so great that they have to get help to bring it ashore. The fruit of faith is always expansive! Two boatloads are filled. The faith of one person can bear fruit for many others.
Once we trust God in the little stories of our lives, then we enter into the great story that he is inviting us to
Peter had shown himself to be open to this activity of God, but once the great result happens, he immediately feels inadequate. Like the prophet Isaiah, and in common with all of us, once we realize that God is at work in our lives, we realize that this is something that we have not merited. But Jesus does not listen to Peter’s protest of insufficiency. Rather, he tells him that he will do things that are even greater; he will become a fisher of men. This Gospel challenges us to conform ourselves to the word in order to become God’s word. We drink in God’s word, then we return to the things we usually do (as St Peter returned to fishing), but now basing ourselves on the Lord’s word, with the result that we live according to a much greater dimension of things. Our activity is transformed into greatness, into mission. This requires, however, that we listen to the word and are obedient to it. Without this step, nothing will happen. If Peter had said, “Lord you have spoken well, but I know there are no fish out there”, then he would have remained as he was. But Peter enters into greatness and glory with a simple act of trust. The little acts of trust that the Lord asks of us are portals through which we enter into the great story of the prophetic mission he calls us to – little acts of faith in order to enter into a life according to the faith.