An interesting fact is that, although written during his Calvinist period, the lectures on Antichrist were republished – with his approval – in 1872, nearly 30 years after his official reception into the Catholic Church. This, as Father Louis Bouyer suggests in his monograph, Newman et sa Vie et sa Spiritualité (Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 1952),[iii] indicates that his beliefs regarding the imminent end of history remained largely unchanged.
The theme of this lecture is indeed the nature of the persecution that the great adversary of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will unleash against the Christians before the end of history. Here is the excerpt quoted by Father Thomas Crean O.P.:
“Perhaps it may not be a persecution of blood and death, but of craft and subtlety only – not of miracles, but of natural wonders and powers of human skill, human acquirements in the hands of the devil. Satan may adopt the more alarming weapons of deceit – he may hide himself – he may attempt to seduce us in little things, and so to move Christians, not all at once, but by little and little from their true position.”[iv]
The passage illustrates the spiritual interpretation applied to all those places in the Holy Scriptures where the persecution of Antichrist (Satan’s servant) against the Christians of the last times is prophesied by the Savior Himself, Jesus Christ. Although there are many passages that refer, directly or indirectly, to these events, the most significant ones are those found in the Gospels of the apostles Matthew and Luke. In the first Gospel, we read:
“The sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven shall be moved” (Matthew 24:29).
In the second mentioned Gospel, the text is quite similar, except for that disturbing detail at the end – the unsettling roar of the waves:
“And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves. Men withering away for fear, and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world. For the powers of heaven shall be moved” (Luke 21:25-26).
The fact that this passage is understood as referring to the great persecution at the end of history may seem surprising. However, considering that such texts can be interpreted both historical-literally, as well as spiritual-allegorically, things need to be clarified. Of course, some of the Holy Fathers and Doctors even see in this a prophecy regarding catastrophic natural events. Because of their magnitude, these events could indicate the imminent end of the world. This is why we can wonder if those phenomena in which some see only the consequences of “global warming” could not have other meanings than the atheist-naturalistic ones. But in the history of the world there have been numerous other such catastrophes. Why should we consider the ones in our time more significant? Or more specifically, who could precisely determine that these truly have an unprecedented magnitude in history? Let’s set aside, for the moment, the discussion about the significance of natural catastrophes and return to the spiritual interpretations given to the two passages in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.
By His statement that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we see the discussion about the nature of the persecution of the Antichrist in a completely different light. For it is absolutely obvious that a physical persecution – which can eventually lead to physical death – is nothing compared to persecution which can lead to spiritual death.
One of the most important exegetes of the Holy Scriptures, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–c. 253), presents an argument as simple as it is convincing in favor of the idea that the mentioned texts do not refer to physical events:
“Concerning the stars, there are some that endeavor to convince us that all, or many of them, are larger than the whole earth. How then shall they fall from heaven, when this earth would not be large enough to contain them?”
While, on one hand, we can be amazed by the astronomical knowledge of an author from nearly two millennia ago, on the other hand, we must accept – based on our astrophysical knowledge that confirms his theory – that he is correct. Stars cannot fall “to the earth.” Consequently, such a passage must be explained allegorically. Among all the authors who propose such interpretations, Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is the author of one of the most detailed ones.
The visionary interpretation of Saint Hildegard of Bingen
Among the meditations she proposed to the nuns in the monastery of which she was the abbess, there is a series of four homilies for Advent. They all pertain to the prophetic passages from the 21st chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Here is her complete commentary on the quoted passage above:
“There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, that is, portents in Christ so that those in error will oppose the humanity of the Savior, and in the church when heretics will attempt to attack the church, and among priests, teachers, and the spiritual people when they will turn away from the truth toward falsehood. And upon the earth, namely, among worldly people, [there will be] distress of nations, clearly of different nations, so that the errors of one people and province will contaminate another people and province and will turn [them] to faithlessness. From the perplexity that the sound of the sea, resounding shamelessly, and of the waves will emit, Antichrist will summon many storms of errors, and Antichrist’s own heretical ministers will run to and from through the entire world with their falsehoods and deceptions.”[v]
Saint Hildegard’s commentary is absolutely astonishing. Reading and rereading it, I admit that I have rarely come across a more accurate prophecy of the present situation in the world and in the Church. What follows, however, represents a veritable culmination of any possible interpretation:
“For the powers of heaven, namely, the bishops and the leaders in the church, who like columns ought to uphold strongly all the institutions and mysteries of the church that belong to heaven, will be shaken in fear and doubt, so that they withdraw, not daring to defend or to speak openly about righteousness and the things that look up at God.”[vi]
We could recognize described here even the present situation of the Church hierarchy. When I first read this text, over five years ago, I first identified a plausible answer to the most challenging question arising from the observation that of all the bishops of the Church, only two – Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905–1991) and Bishop Antônio de Castro Mayer (1904–1991) – had the courage to confront directly and publicly, among other things, the abomination of replacing the Liturgy of the Ages with a “fabricated” liturgy. If at the time of such unprecedented events in the entire history of the Church the hierarchy numbered over three thousands bishops, where were the others? Saint Hildegard gave us the answer a thousand years ago. And all within the context of a symbolic-allegorical interpretation applied to the biblical prophecies about the great persecution – and the last one – before the second coming of our Savior, Christ.
Discussing how the “mystery of iniquity” will unfold throughout history, Saint Roberto Bellarmin states that the persecution directed against true Christians always unfolds on two levels. The first is spiritual, embodied in the early Church by Simon Magus – a “prototype” of heretics throughout history. The second level, physical, is embodied by the bloody Roman emperor Nero.
Saint Robert Bellarmine and the theory of the two persecutions
Discussing how the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thessalonians 2:7) will unfold throughout history, one of the most learned Doctors of the Church, Saint Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621), states that the persecution directed against true Christians always unfolds on two levels. The first is spiritual, embodied in the early Church by Simon Magus – a “prototype” of heretics throughout history. The second level, physical, is embodied by the bloody Roman emperor Nero. So, according to Saint Robert, persecution will always have this dual dimension. Despite this fact, I believe that his vision can be harmonized with the interpretation proposed by the other Cardinal, Saint John Henry Newman. The basis for such an understanding is a word from our Lord that warns us:
“Fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
It is probably obvious to most readers who it is that we have to fear. Saint Ambrose says it as clearly as possible, emphasizing that “God alone is to be feared, to whose power nature prescribes not, but is herself subject.” Enlightened by the word of the Savior, who reminds us by his statement that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10), we see the whole discussion about the nature of the persecution of the Antichrist in a completely different light. For it is absolutely obvious that, although painful, a physical persecution – which can eventually lead to physical death – is nothing compared to persecution which can lead to spiritual death.
The bishop or priest persecuted by his own colleagues or superiors to renounce the Faith or Tradition he has inherited and faithfully serves, on the grounds that “times have changed” and some “texts of Scripture and testimonies of Tradition (…) cannot be materially repeated today,”[vii] is in much greater danger than if his physical life were threatened. This is all the more true if the violence which is exercised upon him is not visible and complete, but, by the means of delusion, he is “encouraged” to renounce any of the dogmatic and moral teachings revealed by the Savior Christ. For betrayal of any of the revealed teachings means separation from the mystical body of God – and that is eternal death.
Today, more than ever, we are all in such danger that it does not necessarily involve our physical death – but our eternal death. Very likely, this is the result of the most terrible persecution that can occur. This can happen, just as the words of Saint Cardinal John Henry Newman (quoted by Father Thomas Crean O.P.) demonstrate when he describes how the Antichrist operates: “He may attempt to seduce us in little things, and so to move Christians, not all at once, but by little and little from their true position.”
Indeed, this is how the sacred treasure of true faith can be lost. And precisely because of this enormous danger, those priests who are truly faithful to the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, warn us that participating in liturgies where the Revealed Truth is not defended and conveyed but, on the contrary, falsified, can be a terrible temptation. Clearly, this is shocking. However, at the same time, it could be a sign of the fulfillment of that prophecy about “the abomination of desolation” by the prophet Daniel. This should be a call from Heaven for all of us to reevaluate our own faith and to turn back, praying with all the zeal we are capable of, to the most important sources born within the context of Holy Tradition: the Holy Scriptures and the Roman Catechism.
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[i] Here is the tweet: https://twitter.com/crean_fr/status/1711102929850040702 [Accessed: 21 October 2023]
[ii] The entire series was included in John Henry Newman’s volume, Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects, London, Basil Montagu Pickering, 1872.
[iii] The English translation is: Newman: An Intellectual and Spiritual Biography of John Henry Newman, New York, Meridan Books, 1958.
[iv] The full text, excerpted from the 1872 volume mentioned in the previous note, deserves to be quoted and read attentively: “This is what I have to say about the last persecution and its signs. And surely it is profitable to think about it, though we be quite mistaken in the detail. For instance, after all perhaps it may not be a persecution of blood and death, but of craft and subtlety only – not of miracles, but of natural wonders and powers of human skill, human acquirements in the hands of the devil. Satan may adopt the more alarming weapons of deceit – he may hide himself – he may attempt to seduce us in little things, and so to move the Church, not all at once, but by little and little from her true position. I do believe he has done much in this way in the course of the last few centuries. I believe he has moved every part of the Church, this way or that way, but some way or other, from “the truth as it is in Jesus," from the old faith on which it was built “before the division of the east and west." It is his policy to split us up and divide us, to dislodge us gradually from off our rock of strength. And if there is to be a persecution, perhaps it will be then; then, perhaps, when we are all of us in all parts of Christendom so divided, and so reduced, so full of schism, so close upon heresy. When we have cast ourselves upon the world, and depend for protection upon it, and have given up our independence and our strength, then he may burst upon us in fury, as far as God allows him. Then suddenly the Roman Empire may break up, and Antichrist appears as a persecutor, and the barbarous nations around break in. But all these things are in God's hand and God's knowledge, and there let us leave them.”
[v] Hildegard of Bingen, Homilies on the Gospels, Translated with Introduction and Notes by Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Cistercian Publications, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2011, p. 192.
[vi] Op. cit., p. 193.
[vii] This is what Pope Francis stated in one of his answers to one of the questions sent by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Sandoval Íñiguez, Sarah and Zen Ze-kiun: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2023-10/pope-francis-responds-to-dubia-of-five-cardinals.html [Accessed: 21 October 2023]