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Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

Disturbing news

Whether we look towards our own Church, the Catholic Church, or towards Christian denominations, towards the ecclesiastical hierarchy or towards the secular world, towards ecclesiastical personalities, showbiz superstars, or celebrities from the world of film, in recent decades scandals regarding their sexual sins have grown exponentially. We often hear about such events affecting various communities, whether religious or not. Despite distortions and even exaggerations in the media, unfortunately, many of them are based on real facts.

Without a doubt, in this interpretation lies one of the most profound lessons of the darkness during the crucifixion of the Savior Christ: the “eclipse” of faith. There is no more terrible test, for any of us, than the Cross.

One of the most fiercely debated issues in the entire history of the Christian Church is that of the status of sacred images. Regardless of the details and historical episodes of this dispute, its primary reference is always the third commandment of the Decalogue transmitted to us by God through Moses:

“Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:3).

At first glance, this article of the Decalogue seems to prohibit any sacred image. However, the mere presence on the ark of the law of the “two cherubims of beaten gold” (Exodus 25:18), as well as other similar examples from the Old Testament, show us that, in fact, it is not about an absolute prohibition. In this sense, Bishop Richard Challoner (1691–1781), in his commentary on this point, states the following:

“All such images, or likenesses, are forbidden by this commandment, as are made to be adored and served; according to that which immediately follows, thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them. That is, all such as are designed for idols or image-gods, or are worshipped with divine honour. But otherwise images, pictures, or representations, even in the house of God, and in the very sanctuary so far from being forbidden, are expressly authorized by the word of God. (See Ex. 25:15, and etc.; chap. 38:7; Num. 21:8, 9; 1 Chron. or Paralip. 28:18, 19; 2 Chron. or Paralip. 3:10).”

Despite the fact that such clear explanations have always existed in Christian Tradition, the great iconoclastic crisis in the Byzantine world, which unfolded in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, could not be prevented. Although it ended by emphasizing the lawful use of sacred images in churches in the Second Council of Nicaea (787), whose teachings were developed under the influence of great theologians such as the saints John of Damascus (c. 675 or 676–749) and Theodore the Studite (759–826), the debate was reignited by the spread of Protestant heresies. Today, under the strong influence of the liturgical revolution (i.e., protestantization), numerous churches suffer from three major symptoms of this misunderstanding of the Decalogue.

It is absolutely necessary, in a context where we are still accused of idolatry (especially by neo-Protestants), to know the teachings of the Church. Thus, besides deepening our own faith, we may perhaps succeed in combating erroneous (i.e., heretical) opinions.

The first, the most serious, is manifested by the almost complete exclusion of sacred images from post-conciliar Catholic churches. While this phenomenon is less noticeable in countries where older churches are still in use, in places where new churches are built, they are often devoid of religious icons. During my early travels in the United States, in New York, Phoenix, and Cary, I saw for the first time Catholic churches where there were no religious images whatsoever. Without exception, they resembled more conference halls or sports venues and had only a single crucifix above or behind the altar. Occasionally, a few statues of better-known saints like Teresa of Lisieux and Padre Pio could be found. Otherwise, there were no sacred images.

A second symptom, equally widespread though not necessarily as severe, consists of replacing images that adhere to the old canons of sacred aesthetics with naturalistic or even post-modern and abstract religious paintings. Often of questionable quality, these paintings make visible the third symptom, namely, the lack of attention to the true requirements of beauty in religious representations. In short, most paintings of this kind are ugly. Often they border on kitsch, as exemplified by the creations of Marko Ivan Rupnik, for instance. Opposed to all these symptoms, the presence of authentic Christian religious art, truly beautiful, is the defining element of authentic Catholic Tradition. It is enough to look at the images from the 18th edition (1915) of the Roman Missal printed by Friedrich Pustet’s printing house to see what respect for the beauty of holy beings and things means.Missale Romanum Pustet

Considering all these aspects related to the liturgical revolution triggered by the eclipse of traditional Christian faith, the first thing I will say is that all deviations originate from the confusion between idol (Greek εἴδωλον) and icon (Greek εἰκών). Bishop Challoner’s explanation is precisely based on the difference between the two entities. It is absolutely necessary, in a context where we are still accused of idolatry (especially by neo-Protestants), to know the teachings of the Church. Thus, besides deepening our own faith, we may perhaps succeed in combating erroneous (i.e., heretical) opinions.

In the world of the Old Testament, which suffered the consequences of the original sin of Adam and Eve, the face of God was hidden from humanity. It was only through the Incarnation of the Son of God that this face became visible again. Therefore, the appearance of icons in the early centuries of the Christian era marks the extraordinary difference between the two worlds.

As I have already mentioned, the main argument invoked by those who reject icons comes from the Old Testament. Starting from the third commandment of the Decalogue, it has been assumed that even in the context of Christianity, religious images have no place in religious worship. Behind this attitude lies a grave error. An error that, in fact, implicitly denies the Incarnation of the Divine Logos – the second Person of the Holy Trinity, Savior Jesus Christ – and the extraordinary consequences of this epochal historical event. This is why the iconic representation par excellence is not that of the Virgin Mary, nor are those of the saints and angels of God. The central representation (i.e., icon) of the entire Christian iconographic program is that of our Savior Jesus Christ. Of course, all other sacred images that represent Him as God-man are equally legitimate, but the latter occupies an exceptional role due to the fact that the second person of the Holy Trinity became man by assuming in His person, alongside the divine nature, the human nature.Jesus Christ Sinai

In the world of the Old Testament, which suffered the consequences of the original sin of Adam and Eve, the face of God was hidden from humanity. It was only through the Incarnation of the Son of God that this face became visible again. Therefore, the appearance of icons in the early centuries of the Christian era marks the extraordinary difference between the two worlds: the old one, before Christ, which did not have access to the Kingdom (the gates being guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword), and the new one, for which the Kingdom is once again accessible and God has become visible through His Incarnation from the Virgin Mary.

Considering this essential point, the Church has defended sacred images from ancient times. What it has actually defended is the realism of God’s Incarnation, the fact that this absolutely extraordinary event is not a fiction but a crucial historical truth. One of the most important teachings was expressed within the Second Council of Nicaea (787):

“As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent veneration, not, however, the veritable adoration which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone – for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented.”

When a mother kisses the photograph of her son who has gone to war, she does not “venerate” the material from which the photograph is made. This is exactly the sense in which the faithful kiss and honor icons: they mark through these gestures a profound communion with the divine persons represented.

So sacred images can and should be venerated. But we must understand exactly the nature of the gestures of venerating icons (adoration is reserved exclusively for God). We do not venerate the material from which the icon is made (wood, ceramic, canvas, etc.), just as we do not venerate the paints with which it is painted. In fact, we honor the persons from the unseen world who are represented, by similarity, in icons. This is the true meaning of veneration. In a well-known example, it is emphasized that when a mother kisses the photograph of her son who has gone to war, she does not “venerate” the material from which the photograph is made. What normal person would do such a thing? The kiss is, in fact, a gesture of communion with the person represented in that photograph. This is exactly the sense in which the faithful kiss and honor icons: they mark through these gestures a profound communion with the divine persons – the “prototypes,” as the Second Council of Nicaea says – represented.

Finally, there is another aspect regarding the importance of images: they educate us. They teach us the truths of faith. In a world flooded with profane images, we need sacred images more than ever. Unlike the profane and often profane images of today’s media culture, icons are true windows to the heavenly Jerusalem, where in the bosom of the Triune God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – dwell all the angels and saints, upon whom shines the beauty of she who “has been raised above the cherubims, and has become higher than the seraphims” – the Holy Virgin Mary.

One of the great defenders and teachers of the iconoclastic cult, Saint John of Damascus, expressed with very beautiful words this reality of nurturing and growing the soul through sacred icons:

“The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.”

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Thus, some of the most beloved creatures, which do so much good to humans through all their products (honey, wax, propolis, pollen, etc.), have been introduced into the prayers of the Church, becoming symbols through which we are taught both the mysteries of faith and how we must live as true Christians, working diligently and devotedly for the mystical body of our Savior Christ, under the guidance of His mother. Actually we are the “bees” invited to bear fruit: “the one thirty, another sixty, and another a hundred” (Mark 4:20).

The absolute axiom of interpreting the four Gospels, which has always been followed by the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, is that nothing of all that the Savior Christ did on this earth was devoid of meaning, nor was it done at random.

The main reference point of our lives, therefore, is the Cross. It is what helps us traverse the tumultuous ocean of the “world” like a lifeboat. It is what protects us from the fire of passions and vices through its fireproof qualities, similar to cork wood. At the same time, with the image of the monk tied to the mast floating at the mercy of the waves before our eyes, we understand that without it, we would sink immediately. 

The biblical prophecies, like those from the secret of Fatima, have occasioned endless debates regarding their meanings. Disappointed by the plurality of interpretations and the controversies that arise, there are numerous Catholics who completely avoid them. The main cause of such an attitude is the conviction that understanding them is practically impossible. I have even met priests and monks who, out of (a maybe exaggerate) prudence, avoided any discussion about prophecies. On the other hand, there are other Catholics who, enthusiastically embracing certain particular interpretations, end up arguing with anyone who does not share their opinions. Only the prophecies remain, impassive and silent, in the pages of Holy Scripture, challenging our capacity for understanding. They are obscure, and when they are fulfilled, things do not happen “photographically.” Let me give you just one example.

The words of prophecies cannot be interpreted in isolation, solely based on one’s own understanding, by someone who does not receive the interpretation transmitted by the same Holy Spirit that inspired the writing of the words of the prophecies.

In the book of Isaiah we find one of the most famous prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. The description is truly majestic: convoys of people, caravans of camels, treasures, and many people are coming. It’s as if crowds of people come to see the divine newborn, the Messiah, to give Him all their wealth. Here are the most spectacular verses:

“Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. (…) The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord. All the flocks of Cedar shall be gathered together unto thee, the rams of Nabaioth shall minister to thee” (Isaiah 60:4, 6-7).

But when we read the episode – in Matthew 2:11 and Luke 2:8-20 – in which this prophecy was fulfilled, what do we see? Three magi and a few shepherds gathered in the poorest place in Israel. Did the prophecy come true or not? Because it doesn’t really look as majestic as it does in the book of Isaiah. At the same time I am sure that it was fulfilled. But its fulfillment does not imply a “photographic” match. I can give you other similar examples. However, all will show that there is what Saints like Irenaeus (c.130–c.202), John Chrysostom (c.347 –407), and Robert Bellarmine, S.J. (1542–1621) call the “obscurity” of prophecies. This led the first Pope in history, Saint Peter, to issue an important warning:

“Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. For prophecy came not by the will of man at any time: but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:20-21).[i]

The meaning of Peter’s words has been clarified for us by several Saints and Doctors of the Church. Among them, Bede the Venerable (672/3–735) emphasizes that those who wrote the prophetic texts were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the same Spirit must be “listened to” by those who interpret them:

“The prophets heard God speaking to them in the secret recesses of their own hearts. They simply conveyed that message by their preaching and writing to God’s people. (…) For this reason the reader cannot interpret them by himself, because he is liable to depart from the true meaning, but rather he must wait to hear how the One who wrote the words wants them to be understood.”[ii]

The words of prophecies cannot be interpreted in isolation, solely based on one’s own understanding, by someone who does not receive the interpretation transmitted by the same Holy Spirit that inspired the writing of the words of the prophecies. This perspective is similar to that of the famous Jewish exegete, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE–c. 50 CE), who in De Praemiis et Poenis (On Rewards and Punishments) states, “Propheta est interpres Dei dictantis oracula” (i.e., “The prophet is an interpreter of the oracles dictated by God”). Therefore, how could prophecies be interpreted without the author of them – God himself – revealing their meaning to us?

In order to authentically interpret the prophecies of Scripture, two things are necessary: a) the interpreter must have the gift of interpreting prophecies; b) this gift must be fruitful by becoming capable of “hearing” the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the depths of the hearts of those who write the prophecies and of those who interpret them.

Consequently, if we want to correctly understand a prophecy, we must fulfill the necessary conditions for “communication” with the Holy Spirit. However, we must also remember that Holy Scripture indicates the existence of a special charism of prophecy, as mentioned by Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 12:10). Additionally, there is another aspect emphasized by the famous Renaissance commentator, Cornelius Cornelii à Lapide S.J. (1567–1637), namely that the final word in the interpretation of prophecies belongs not to an individual person, even if holy, but to the Church. This teaching is based on the Council of Trent where, in the Fourth Session, it was affirmed: “Ecclesiae ergo est judicare de vero sensu et interpretatione S. Scripturae” (i.e., “It is therefore for the Church to judge about the true sense and interpretation of Holy Scripture”).

Let’s recapitulate. In order to authentically interpret the prophecies of Scripture, two things are necessary: a) the interpreter must have the gift of interpreting prophecies; b) this gift must be fruitful by becoming capable of “hearing” the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the depths of the hearts of those who write the prophecies and of those who interpret them. As for us, who do not possess such qualities, we can have opinions based, possibly, on the interpretations of saints. But this requires prudence and, above all, humility on our part: we must recognize our limitations and accept that, as taught by the Council of Trent, only the Church can have the final word in the interpretation of a biblical text – thus also of a prophecy. I emphasize that no matter how thorough and coherent certain particular interpretations may seem to us, a good dose of prudence is always necessary.

Returning to the reasons for the obscurity of prophecies, Saint Robert Bellarmine proposes an explanation drawn from the treatise on heresies of Saint Irenaeus of Lyon. Here is his conclusion:

“It happens, that it is common to all prophecies of the prophets to be ambiguous and obscure until they are fulfilled, just as Irenaeus rightly teaches and proves.”

Only those “who have ears to hear” the inner Teacher (i.e., Holy Spirit) in the depths of their hearts will discern the authentic meaning of the prophecies. Until we reach that spiritual stature, however, we grope in the darkness.

In other words, only after their fulfillment can we say with certainty that the “signs” have been crystal clear. But why doesn’t God offer us absolute certainties before their fulfillment? And why don’t they come true “photographically”? Over time, several answers have been proposed to such difficult questions. Among them, one of the most important seems to me to refer not only to prophecies, but to the understanding of Holy Scripture in general: we are encouraged to grow spiritually so as to reach the maturity of the mind, supported by grace, in order to understand them correctly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, only those “who have ears to hear” the inner Teacher (i.e., Holy Spirit) in the depths of their hearts will discern the authentic meaning of the prophecies. Until we reach that spiritual stature, however, we grope in the darkness. This precarious state invites us, on the one hand, to recognize our humble limitations, and on the other hand, to multiply our prayers, asking God to enlighten us.

If you don’t already know it, this small prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas is exactly what we need:

“Creator ineffabilis, qui de thesauris sapientiae tuae tres Angelorum hierarchias designasti et eas super caelum empyreum miro ordine collocasti atque universi partes elegantissime distribuisti: Tu, inquam, qui verus fons luminis et sapientiae diceris ac supereminens principium, infundere digneris super intellectus mei tenebras tuae radium claritatis, duplices, in quibus natus sum, a me removens tenebras, peccatum scilicet et ignorantiam. Tu, qui linguas infantium facis disertas, linguam meam erudias atque in labiis meis gratiam tuae benedictionis infundas. Da mihi intelligendi acumen, retinendi capacitatem, addiscendi modum et facilitatem, interpretandi subtilitatem, loquendi gratiam copiosam. Ingressum instruas, progressum dirigas, egressum compleas. Tu, qui es verus Deus et homo, qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum. Amen.”[iii]

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[i] “Hoc primum intelligentes quod omnis prophetia Scripturae propria interpretatione non fit. Non enim voluntate humana allata est aliquando prophetia : sed Spiritu Sancto inspirati, locuti sunt sancti Dei homines.”

[ii] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Edited by Gerald Bray, IVP Academic, 2000, p. 141.

[iii] “O infinite Creator, who in the riches of Thy wisdom didst appoint three hierarchies of Angels and didst set them in wondrous order over the highest heavens, and who didst apportion the elements of the world most wisely: do Thou, who art in truth the fountain of light and wisdom, deign to shed upon the darkness of my understanding the rays of Thine infinite brightness, and remove far from me the twofold darkness in which I was born, namely, sin and ignorance. Do Thou, who givest speech to the tongues of little children, instruct my tongue and pour into my lips the grace of Thy benediction. Give me keenness of apprehension, capacity for remembering, method and ease in learning, insight-in interpretation, and copious eloquence in speech. Instruct my beginning, direct my progress, and set Thy seal upon the finished work, Thou, who art true God and true Man, who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.”

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski's reaction

In a recent post on his Facebook channel, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski expressed his indignation at the response given by Tim Staples on Catholic Answers to the question “why Francis hates the TLM and why he wants to get rid of it.” Here is what Staples replied:

“Francis is just completing the work of Vatican II, because we must have one liturgy of the Roman Rite. Just like Trent did back at that council.”

In a world marked by the rejection of the Christian faith and the unprecedented spread of heresies that have even infected the hierarchy of the Church, the thought of an imminent divine punishment has become inevitable. Therefore, a clear answer to the key question stated in the title is as necessary as possible: can the end of the world prophesied in the sacred books of Holy Scriptures be identified with an atomic war?

The two extremely important aspects regarding the interpretation of our Lord’s statement “Judge not, that you may not be judged” refer, firstly, to the content – what we should and should not judge, and secondly, to the manner in which we judge – how we judge.

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