The Passion of the Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Church herself must one day pass through a form of crucifixion, like her Lord, in order to share in His resurrection. This passion of the Church is a necessary precondition of her final and glorious resurrection. She will, at the end, pass through a great religious deception “offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.” This is the persecution of the Antichrist. It was not intended that the Catechism contain any teachings legitimately disputed among faithful Catholic theologians. The fact of this passion of the church and this deception is included because the editors of the Catechism considered it just that — a fact. They considered it an accepted part of the settled teaching of the Church. Many, reflecting upon Our Lord’s words in Luke 21:24,Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles; till the times of the nations be fulfilled”, have wondered whether, with the recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem by the State of Israel in 1967, the times of the nations might not indeed be fulfilled. The falling away of Catholics since that time has certainly been striking. It is natural therefore to wonder if some terrible persecution might not be just around the corner and, as the fury of modern ideologues against anyone who continues to adhere to reason or nature intensifies, it is easy to imagine that imprisonment and corporeal affliction are not far behind. As Edmund Burke observed of the transition from philosophe to revolutionary in the eighteenth century:

“To those who have observed the spirit of their conduct, it has long been clear that nothing was wanted but the power of carrying the intolerance of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution which would strike at property, liberty, and life.” 

And yet there may be an even more subtle deception concealed within this suspicion. The very expectation of bloody persecution encourages us to “keep our powder dry” against the day when we are required to refuse all compromise. As Thomas More observes to his daughter in A Man for All Seasons:

“If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamour like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass.”

But what if the Evil One is working on these very expectations and has no intention of ever subjecting the Church of the final days to such an overt and bloody persecution? What if he is luring us into an “imminent apostasy” by prosecuting the last and most terrible persecution through seduction rather than violence? Already, two hundred years ago, St John Henry Newman saw this possibility:

“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 Christians, not all at once, but by little and little from their true position.”

What Christian can read this passage and then survey the dreadful prospect of the contemporary western moral collapse without feeling a chill of terror? How far has each of us compromised in order to preserve our place within this order? The contemporary atmosphere is oddly reminiscent of England at the beginning of the 1530s when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were chipping away bit by bit at the legal position of the Papacy in England, and deliberately doing so in such a way that it would be hard to tell at any given moment which side of the line any particular act or omission would put one on. The Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham steeled himself to resist, hesitated, and died before he could regularise his position.  

Surely though, such apocalyptic speculation is out of place. Does not Our Lord tell us that “of that day and hour no one knoweth”? Indeed, but this is not intended to allow us to put the prospect of the last deception and the last persecution out of our minds but to remind us that we should be ever vigilant. As St John says:

“Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.”

1 John 2:18

This does not indicate, as the Modernists would have it, that the Apostles (or indeed the Lord) were deluded about the timescale of salvation history and the imminence of the end but rather that, as the Catechism puts it, “The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history”. In every generation figures who could be the antichrist are present, the mystery of iniquity is at work, and diabolical disorientation is on offer. When the Pelagians criticised St Augustine for his promotion of consecrated virginity on the grounds that a universal adoption of this state of life would abolish the Church, Augustine replied that, on the contrary, the number of the elect would be made up in that generation. The completion of history is always just around the corner and just out of reach — until the day it is not.

This is reflected in the petitions of the Our Father, which are much more apocalyptic than we usually appreciate, used as we are to repeating the words every day. The manifestation of the holiness of God in the here and now, the coming of the kingdom, the performance of God’s will on earth just as it is enacted in heaven, the giving of the bread of tomorrow (ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον), the forgiveness of our debtor in order that we might safely enter into the presence of the Holy One (see Mt 5:23–26), avoidance of premature entry into the tribulation and deliverance from the evil one or thing or day; each of these petitions relates to the final persecution and the last and eternal judgement of the universe. This does not, however, make them irrelevant to our daily needs but rather reemphasises the way in which the end times are perpetually threatening to break into our history.

When we pray the Our Father, we are asking for something truly terrible, and we should not forget it. No Christian may cherish the wish to avoid the end of all things, because the Christian prays for it every day. As C.S. Lewis observed:

“I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else — something it never entered your head to conceive — comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.”

The Lord entered Jerusalem in triumph, acclaimed with clearly regal epithets by enthusiastic crowds. He held the multitude in the capital spellbound with his teaching for the better part of a week. He gathered the apostolic college around Him for the institution of the sacrifice of the New Law. Then, suddenly, he was betrayed. The disciples, even the most exalted, wearied of their vigil. The betrayer concealed his treachery under the cloak of affection. The bitterest enemies forgot their mutual enmity in united hostility towards our Saviour. All His followers abandoned Him. He was subjected to the parody of legal process by the spiritual and temporal powers, slandered as a criminal, striped, scourged, mocked, driven through the streets, and crucified.

Given the teaching of the Catechism on this point (CCC 677) it is not unreasonable to suppose that when the end does finally break through into our time the Church will be similarly “triumphant” from an earthly perspective and the turn in her visible fortunes similarly abrupt and terrible.

In the last days, the Lord tells us, “because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold” (Matthew 24:12) and “the Son of man,” He asks, “when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). Does that not sound very like these very times in which we live? In his commentary on the Apocalypse, St Bede the Venerable teaches that the repeated sequences of sevens in the Book of Revelation symbolise seven eras in the history of the Church from Pentecost to the Saviour’s return in glory. In contemplating the end times, therefore, and the way in which we may deceive ourselves and be deceived about their proximity and the nature of the persecution and deception they entail, it is salutary to consider the last of the seven letters that Our Lord dictates through St John to the churches of Asia at the beginning of the Apocalypse and to ask ourselves whether we have not just looked into a mirror.

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'”