by Niels Christian Hvidt
A talk given at the conference “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit at the Threshhold of the Second Millenium” in Cattolica, September 18-21, 1998, arranged by “The Movement of Hope.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends. Tomorrow we are going to hear the best-known prophet alive today – Vassula. She is also the most contested mystic, but this does not necessarily mean that she is not authentic; rather – as I will show – it is one of the traits of prophecy: The prophets are never popular. Father Somavilla will speak about the tradition of prophecy in the Church and compare Vassula with other prophets. Marino Parodi will introduce Vassula to you, and Vassula herself will speak of her prophetic experience.
You probably all have heard the saying: We do not need any prophets, because God has spoken through his Son and therefore he has nothing more to say. Martin Luther said this, and Saint John of the Cross said the same, although in a very specific meaning, spoken in a very polemic context. Apart from this specific context the words of John of the Cross would not make much sense.
However, it happens that Catholic theologians propose the idea of the end of prophecy with the coming of Christ and thereby deny the Holy Spirit the possibility of communicating with his Children today through various charisms. It is this problem, I wish to address through this paper. I will elucidate that the idea is a misunderstanding of fundamental Christian truths and that it does not make sense to say as a Christian that God has no more to say. I intend to do so by focusing on the very nature and concept of Christian prophecy, elucidating what is a Christian prophet and what is God’s purpose in sending prophets to the world.
“Is there no prophet of the Lord here, through whom we may inquire of the Lord?” (2 Kings 3,11). The words are of one of the kings in the Old Testament in a difficult political situation. The prophets played an important part in the Old Testament. Large parts of the Old Testament appear as directly revealed, prophetic speech of God. The prophet experiences the word of God and preaches it to his contemporaries not as his own word but as direct “Word of the Lord.” The prophetic line continues into the New Testament, as the New Testament in numerous passages speaks about prophets. But what happens with the end of the last book of the Bible? Does God suddenly stop manifesting himself? Does he pack his suitcase and take a long holiday, until he one day will be “coming with the clouds of heaven”? (Mk 14,62). Or does he reveal himself today when he finds it necessary, just as he did before in history? The experiences of the saints and mystics of the Church seem to confirm the latter.
Any person attending the topic of prophecy will make some interesting observations: There have always been prophets in the Church that behaved and spoke as the prophets in the Old and New Testament did. It appears to be possible to characterize the specific traits of Christian prophecy and the role of prophecy in the Church. One will find that theological work with the concept of prophecy does not lead to the periphery of theology but to the heart of primary theological issues. And finally one will be surprised to discover how little theological work has been done in the field of Christian prophecy.
Christians, Jews and Moslems believe that God revealed himself to the prophets of the Old Testament in order to lead his people in difficult situations. John the Baptist in the New Testament is named the last prophet, in the sense that he is the last who is to announce the coming of the Messiah, but he is not the last prophet, mentioned in the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke recalls Simeon and the prophet Anna, who both prophecy about the baby Jesus (Luke 2,25-28). Jesus himself is called prophet and observes that a prophet is never honored in his native city (John 4,44). In the “Acts of the Apostles” there is mention both of male and female prophets in the congregations. Philip is told by an angel to meet a man in a cart, who is to arrive on a certain road, and to whom he speaks about the gospel (Acts 8,26-40). Through a vision, the apostle Peter realizes that he is not to differentiate between races, but that all are equal in the eyes of God (Acts 10,11-16). The conversion of Paul is provoked by a vision of Christ and his entire apostolate is accompanied by visions. Another prophet, Agabus, tells Paul prior to his departure to Jerusalem, that he will be put in chains in Palestine (Acts 21,11).
Paul, in his own letters, speaks about prophets in the Church and names them immediately after the apostles. The prophets seem to have made out one among many different offices in the Church. Just as there were official priests, likewise there were prophets, teachers, deacons and exorcists. Paul says about the prophets that they build up, encourage and console other people (1 Cor. 14,3-4). The prophets in the congregations of the New Testament seem to have been travelling prophets that went from congregation to congregation, although the Churches in Jerusalem and Antioch appear to have had permanent prophets (Acts 11,27; 13,1). The last book of the New Testament – the Revelation of John also called The Apocalypse – is one comprehensive collection of visions and prophetic revelations. The presence of prophecy in the New Testament is tremendous. As Christians we believe that the reality, presented in the writings of the New Testament, is supposed to be the element and foundation of all later Christianity. If this is the case it appears to be a misconception to exclude prophecy from the agenda of the Christian Church.
And so it is – the writings of the Ancient Church that emerged immediately after the Biblical scriptures clearly indicate the presence of prophets. The Fathers of the Church argue that the Church never will be without its prophets. One of the most important collection of sources, the so-called Apostolic Fathers, clearly indicates the presence of prophecy in the Ancient Church. One of the texts in this collection, “Hermas the Shepherd,” in prophetic revelations speaks about the life in the congregations and about what is to come in the future. The resemblance with the Revelation of John is profound. Another good example in the Apostolic Fathers is the “Didaché”, which contain long passages about how the faithful are to judge the authenticity of prophets. In the “Didaché” the primary sign of the authentic prophet is the moral behavior of the prophet. Other Ancient Church sources speak about the criterion for the authenticity of prophets: Prophets are to be judged on their fruits and on their message.
The face of prophecy changes
Prophecy as a phenomenon and function in the Church does not disappear. However, one has to say that the face of prophecy changes. In the beginning, the Church was guided both by priests and prophets, but prophecy as an office appears to diminish already within the first Christian century. Although it remains an “office in the Church” all the way to the end of the second century, it appears mainly outside of the institutional frames of the Church. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit abandons the institution, only that prophecy in its classical charismatic form mainly emerges spontaneously beyond the borders of ordered institutional religion. The fact that some popes and other Church leaders have had visions and prophetic revelations does not change this mainstream tendency. There are different reasons why prophecy ceases to be an office, primarily the negative experiences with false prophecies. The danger of false prophets is the Achilles’-heel of prophecy and the primary reason for the negative evaluation of prophecy.
Authority in the Ancient Church was something charismatic, based on the immediate experience of the Heavenly Christ through the prophets. The negative experiences with false prophecies led to a change in authority where the Church moved away from this charismatic, vertical type of authority to a more horizontal authority, based on the historical recollection of the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. This was a process that had tremendous implications for the development of Christianity. It led to the necessity of a sure and immutable testimony of the life of Jesus, of which the Bible became a natural answer (Hallbäck 60).
Most prophets are women
Another change in the face of prophecy is that Christian prophets become women. This counts especially for the Catholic tradition. In the Old Testament most prophets are men. The New Testament speaks both of male and female prophets. But starting with the revelations of Hildegard of Bingen in the 13th century, receiving messages from God and proclaiming them as “Word of the Lord” becomes an almost purely female privilege. All the major prophets are women: Birgitta of Vadstena, Catherine of Sienna, Jeanne d’Arc, Maria a la Coque and Sister Faustina Kowalska, just to mention a few. These women – mostly later canonized saints – have played a very important part in the life of the Church. Already several of the Fathers of the Church related the prophets to the female element in the Church. Especially Mary, the mother of Jesus, is portrayed as prophet par excellence. Mary is the archetype of Christian prophecy through her ability to listen to and receive the Word of God in order to let it bear fruit and to extend it to the world.
Turning to theology to learn more about prophecy in order to know what exactly a prophet is and does, one will make a surprising discovery. Rino Fisichella notes that “confronting the topic of Christian prophecy is like contemplating wreckage after shipwreck” (p. 788). Few theological topics have been covered so poorly as Christian prophecy. Such theologians as Karl Rahner (p. 22), Hans Urs von Balthasar (p. XI) and Joseph Ratzinger (p. 106) have lamented this almost blank space on the theological chart. But the nearly blank space is interesting, for it reflects a characteristic of the prophets: they are never very popular! Just as the Church normally has rejected the prophets while they were alive, likewise there seems to be a desire in theology to get done with the topic as fast as possible.
In the Catholic tradition prophecy is disregarded due to a very unfortunate tendency in Catholic theology. It concerns the definition of the complex concept of revelation. The problem was how you would define what revelation is. For a long time revelation was considered to concern nothing but teaching. God reveals himself only to extend teachings and doctrines to the Church. This idea of revelation is called dogmatic approach to revelation. From the heart of this understanding came forth the idea of the end of revelation with the last apostle. You may have heard about this doctrine. It is very important and has influenced the idea of prophecy tremendously. It is obvious: if revelation is all about doctrine Jesus and the apostles have given all we need to know about salvation and then God has nothing more to tell us, for there can be no more perfect revelation than Jesus Christ and no doctrine more perfect than the doctrine He taught his disciples.
But this idea of revelation has very bad disadvantages. First of all it implies that God is a God who after having spoken with his son packs his suitcase and retires on a long holiday until he will come again on the day of judgment. But this is not the Christian God. Jesus revealed God as the God who constantly is in search of his Creatures, because he loves his creatures.
The Second Vatican Council corrected many of these misunderstandings. The theologians of the council had come to the conclusion that God’s act of revelation is not at all just about doctrine. When God reveals himself it is not just because he wants to add to the books of doctrine. He reveals himself because he loves his Church and because he wants to draw his children into fellowship with himself. This new idea of revelations is called the personalistic approach to revelation. In this approach the idea of the end of revelation with the last apostle was discerned as being an incomplete picture of revelation. It proved that the word end was a faulty translation of the latin completare which you know does not mean to end but to fulfill – Christ is the fulfilled revelation of God but not in last manifestation.
This is very important to the idea of Christian Prophecy. It means that there can very well be Christian Prophets. It is true, that they cannot say anything that goes against God’s revelation in Christ. The Bible is the normative testimony of Christ’s revelation, but not his last, as Jesus in the Bible says: I have still much to tell you. And another place in John the Evangelist writes that the words and works of Christ could never be told to the full measure – if they would be written the accounts would fill all the earth (John 21:25). Sometimes the Church may come so far away from the revelation in Christ, that the words of the prophets may seem as a “new word.” But when Christ is the Word of God, it is logical that a prophet never will say anything essentially new, since the Truth of God is but one truth.
Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of the most important theologians of our Century. At the Gregorian University there are presently more doctoral dissertations written about Balthasar than about any other theologian. Balthasar is a theologian who has reflected deeply on the concept of Christian prophecy. He believes that Christ potentially has the Life and Sacrifice of Christ on an objective level has made everything new – Christ gave the sacrifice that was needed in order to lift the barrier between God and man. He has given the possibility for man to be united with God, but this possibility still awaits its full realisation. If one looks at what man has accomplished in this century only – I think especially of the Holocaust – one can understand people who have a hard time respecting the belief that the saviour has come to the world. The world does not always look as if it has had its saviour! The coming of Christ is not God’s last word – it is his most perfect word, but this word needs to be put into practice, and this is why one can rightfully say that Christianity truly is an intermediary state between what Christ did and what he will accomplish through history and at the end of times. The fathers of the Church were very aware of this. Christ has come only in order to come again to fulfill the kingdom he promised in his first coming. It is in this already but not fully that most Christian practices have their place – prayers, comtemplative life, sacrifice, mission and every initiative to bring the gospel to fulfillment. And it is here prophecy has its place. Jesus in John’s Gospel says that the Holy Spirit will remind the Church of everything (14:26) and lead into all the truth (16: 12-15). All Christian activity has to do with this reminding of the truth. It is on this process of reminding and leading into the truth one has to focus in order to reach to the heart of the nature and the scope of prophecy.
- Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Thomas und die Charismatik. Freiburg, 1996.
- Fisichella, Rino. Dictionary of fundamental theology. Ed. René Latourelle & Rino Fisichella. New York, 1994.
- Hallbäck, Gert. Nordisk Nytestamentligt Nyhedsbrev. Nr. 2, august 1995.
- Rahner, Karl. Visionen und Prophezeihungen. Herder, 1958.
- Ratzinger Joseph. Wesen und Auftrag der Theologie. Freiburg, 1993.