Pope Paul VI

Author: Signs of the Times


Pope Paul VI

The address of Paul VI at the general audience on Wednesday, 16th April, dealt with the meaning of "signs of the times" and withthe method to detect their presence and scope with certainty.

Beloved Sons and Daughters!

One of the characteristic attitudes of the Church after the Council is that of particular attention to human reality, considered historically; that is, to the facts, the events, the phenomena of our times. An expression of the Council has entered our habits: that of scrutinizing "the signs of the times". This ex pression has a remote evangelical reminiscence: "Can you not read the signs of the times?"—Jesus once asked his hostile and untrustworthy listeners (Matt. 16, 4). The Lord was alluding then to the miracles he was working, and which were to indicate the coming of the messianic hour. But today the expression has a new meaning of great importance, albeit along the same line. It was used, in fact, by Pope John XXIII in the Apostolic Constitution with which he convened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, when, after observing the sad spiritual conditions of the contemporary world, he wished to rekindle the hope of the Church, writing: "We like to place staunch confidence in the divine Saviour... who exhorts us to recognize the signs of the times", so that "we see amid obscure darkness numerous indications that seem to announce better times for the Church and for mankind" (A.A.S. 1962, p. 6) The signs of the times are, in this sense, portents of better conditions.

John XXIII and the Council

The expression has passed into the conciliar documents (especially the pastoral Constitution "Gaudium at spes", n. 4; we catch a glimpse of it in the wonderful page of n. 10; then in n. 11; also in nos. 42, 44; and in the Decree on the activity of the Laity, n. 14; in the Constitution on the S. Liturgy, n. 43; etc.)

This phrase "the signs of the times" has therefore taken on a current use and a deep, very wide and very interesting meaning, that is, that of the theological interpretation of contemporary history. That history, considered in its main lines, has offered Christian thought the opportunity, nay rather the invitation, to discover a divine plan in it, has always been well known. What is "sacred history" but the identification of a divine thought, of a transcendent "economy", in the course of the events that lead to Christ and are derived from Christ? But this discovery is a subsequent one. It is a synthesis, the formulations of which are sometimes questionable, made by the scholar when the events are past and can be considered in an overall perspective, and sometimes placed deductively in an ideological background derived from other doctrinal sources, not from the inductive analysis of the events themselves. Now, on the contrary, modern thought is invited to decipher in historical reality, particularly the present, the "signs", that is the indications of a meaning that goes further than the one recorded by the passive observer.

This presence of the "sign" in the realities perceived by our immediate consciousness would deserve long reflection. In the religious field the "sign" has a very important place. The divine kingdom is not ordinarily accessible to out knowledge in a direct, experimental, intuitive way, but by way of signs (thus the knowledge of God is possible for us through introspection of things, which assume the value of a sign (cfr. Rom. 1, 20). Thus the supernatural order is communicated to us by the sacraments, which are tangible signs of an invisible reality, etc.). Then, too, even human language finds expression by way of phonetic or conventional written signs with which thought is transmitted; and so on. In the whole created universe we can find signs of an order, a thought, a truth, that can act as a metaphysical bridge (that is beyond the framework of physical reality) to the ineffable, but surreal world of the "unknown God " (cfr. Acts 17, 23 ss.; Rom. 8, 22; Lumen gentium, n. 16), In the perspective that we are considering now, it is a question of detecting "in the times", that is in the course of events, in history, those aspects, those "signs" that can give us some indication of an immanent Providence (this is an habitual thought for religious minds), or that can be indications to us (and this is what interests us now) of some connection with the "kingdom of God", with its secret action, or—still better for our study and for our duty—with the possibility, the availability, the exigency of an apostolic action. These indications seem to Us properly "the signs of the times".

The world is a book

Hence a series of important and interesting conclusions. The world becomes a book for us. Our life, today, is very busy with the continual vision of the outside world. The media of communication have grown so much, and are so aggressive, that they keep us busy, distract us, take us out of ourselves, empty us of our personal conscience. This is where we must be careful. We can pass from the position of mere observers to that of critics, thinkers, judges. This attitude of reflective knowledge is of the greatest importance for the modern soul, if it wishes to remain a living soul, and not just a screen for the thousand impressions to which it is subject. And for us Christians this act of reflection is necessary, if we wish to discover "the signs of the times"; because, as the Council teaches (Guadiumet spes, n. 4), the interpretation of the "times", that is of the empirical and historical reality that surrounds us and makes impressions on us, must be done "in the light of the Gospel". The discovery of the "signs of the times" is a fact of Christian conscience. It results from a comparison of faith with life; not to superimpose, artificially and superficially, a devout thought on the cases of our experience, but rather to see where these cases postulate, by their intrinsic dynamism, by their very obscurity, and sometimes by their very immorality, a ray of faith, an evangelical word, that classifies them, that redeems them. That is, the discovery of the "signs of the times" takes place to make us notice where they spontaneously meet higher plans, which we know to be Christian and divine (such as the pursuit of unity, of peace, of justice), and where any charitable or apostolic action of ours coincides with a development of favourable circumstances, indicating that the time has come for a simultaneous step forward of the kingdom of God in the human kingdom.

The method to follow

This method seems to Us indispensable to prevent certain dangers, to which the fascinating search for the "signs of the times" might expose us. The first danger is that of a charismatic prophetism, which often degenerates into bigoted fancy, conferring miraculous interpretations on chance and often insignificant coincidences. Eagerness to discover easily "the signs of the times" may make us forget the ambiguity, in many cases, of evaluation of observed facts, all the more so if we are, to attribute to the "People of God", that is, to every believer, a possible capacity to decipher "signs of God's presence and purpose" (Gaudium et spes, n. 11). The "sensus fidei" may confer this gift of wise insight, but the assistance of the hierarchical magisterium will always be provident ad decisive, when the ambiguity of the interpretation deserves to be solved either in the certainty of truth or to the benefit of the common good.

The second danger lies in the purely phenomenal observation of the facts from which it is desired to obtain indications of the "signs of the time". This may happen when these facts are surveyed and classified in purely technical and sociological schemata. We willingly adult that sociology is a science of great merit in itself and for the purpose that interests us, that is, the search for a higher and indicative meaning of the facts themselves. But sociology cannot be an independent moral criterion, nor can it replace theology. This new scientific humanism might militate against the authenticity and the originality of our Christianity and of its supernatural values.

Christian vigilance

Another danger might arise from considering the historical aspect of this problem as predominant. It is true that the study of history is the study of time, and it tries to draw from it signs characteristic of the religious field. For us the latter consists essentially in the central event of the historical presence of Christ in time and in the world, from which is derived the Gospel the Church and her mission of salvation. That is, the unchangeable element of revealed truth should not be subject to the changeability of times, in which it is diffused and sometimes appears with "signs" that do not distort it, but give a glimpse of it and fulfil it in pilgrim humanity (cfr. Chenu, Les signes des temps, in Nouv. Révue Théol. 1.1.65. p. 29-39).

But all this merely summons us to pay attention to and study the "signs of the times", which are to bestow sagacity and modernity on our Christian judgment and our apostolate in the midst of the flood of transformations sweeping over the contemporary world. It is the old. ever living word of the Lord that re-echoes in our minds: "Keep watch" (Luke 21,36).May Christian watchfulness be our art in discerning the "signs of the times".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 April 1969, page 1

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