Slouching Toward Baltimore: Pope's Visit and Thoughts on The End


Unless there is another last-minute change, Pope John Paul II will soon make the first visit to Baltimore of any of the 265 or so reigning Bishops of Rome. He is scheduled to be in the United States in early October.

In terms of expectations, this could be called his second coming. (He was here earlier as a Polish bishop.)

One local observer has felt, though, that the hype attending this visit, especially in the archdiocesan newspaper, suggests that we are now having a dry run for the more famous Second Coming.

Among people of all faiths and none, however, the visit is being warmly and widely welcomed. The days seem to be gone when many Americans, especially nativists and Know-Nothings, regarded any pope as the Antichrist. In 1853-'54, Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, a papal representative visiting the United States, provoked a riot in Cincinnati, and had to sail home secretly from New York.

In our own century, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. spoke of anti-Catholicism as the deepest-grained prejudice in American culture. And the scholar Peter Viereck described anti-Catholicism as "the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals."

Preoccupied himself with the approaching Third Millennium, John Paul II recently spoke to his own special Millennial Commission, voicing the hope that the faithful would not succumb to "millenarian temptations." Presumbly, he meant the

serious expectation that the Antichrist and the End are near. He knows that even saints and popes have had such expectations in their own times.

Pope St. Gregory the Great (A.D. 590-604), for example, was so persuaded of the approaching End that he sent missionaries to England to save as many souls as possible while time remained.

Historically, Christians have been double-minded about the End. The New Testament concludes with the words, "Come, Lord Jesus." Some apocalyptically eager Christians worked especially hard at the mass conversion of Jews because that conversion was deemed necessary before the End could arrive.

But other Christians did not feel ready for the End. The early theologian Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-220) urged his fellow Christians to pray for the welfare of the Roman emperors because he regarded them as the force restraining the "man of sin" who had to appear before the End (See II Thessalonians 2:1-12).

Not long ago a large ad in The Sun announced that "Christ is Coming Very, Very Soon." Among some group of Christians, especially fundamentalists (who, dismissing cultural and linguistic problems, interpret all of the Bible literally as God's inerrant word), such an expectation is focused on the approach of a new millennium. That will be in 2000 or A.D. 2001, depending on how you reckon decades.

In fact, according to a late 1994 U.S. News and World Report survey, one out of five Americans believe the arrival of the Antichrist and the end of the world will come within the next few years or decades.

Often these views are based on various rather obscure and plastic prophecies that ingenious literalists claim to find in the Bible. This plasticity has allowed Christians of all ages to predict the imminent End. As Bernard McGinn points out in his recent study "Antichrist," the calamitous 14th century -- with its Black Plague, its Babylonian Captivity (the forced move of the papacy to France) and the Great Schism (involving three claimants to the papacy) produced prophecies that the End would come in 1346, 1347, 1348, 1360 (a favorite of those followers of Abbot Joachim of Flora), 1375, 1379, 1396 and 1400. People who make such prophecies are fond of years ending in zero.

Even before the New Testament Book of Revelation spoke of a thousand-year period in connection with the End, prophets who had no idea how old human history is liked to divide history into thousand-year eras.

As for the Book of Revelation, whose visions some early Christians had trouble recounting with the rest of the New Testament, the thousand-year image pertains to a period of peace and goodness after the Second Coming of Christ. That coming had nothing to do with any supposed thousand-year period after the birth of Christ; in other words, the year A.D. 2000 or (2001) has no biblical or theological significance -- even if Revelation were to be interpreted literally, an idea which great theologians such as Augustine of Hippo have rejected.

Anyway, since by common estimation the Christian calendar is about five years off and wasn't even devised until the A.D. 500s, the Second Coming of Christ -- if it were somehow connected with a millennium -- should have occurred in A.D. 995 or in the present year 1995.

A favorite argument for a sign of the End is that "the Gospel has been preached to the whole world and people have had a chance to repent." At the time of Jesus there were considerably fewer than 300 million people in the world. Between now and the new millennium more people will be born than existed when the gospel was first preached. Will these souls be given a chance to sin and then repent?

In our own times, the imminent End has been preached by Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and others (like the Waco Branch Davidians, with tragic results). In his book "When Prophecy Fails," Stanley Schachter details the spiritual and intellectual damage done to people who trust in apocalyptic predictions and then feel betrayed.

Of course, "true believers" will struggle to find some rationalization for a failed prophecy. If expectation of the End prompts some people to put their spiritual houses in order, that would not be necessarily be a regrettable consequence of an improbable belief. Still, realism in religion is a preferable trait.

Some scholars think we Americans have a special fondness for expecting the End. More than skeptical Europeans, we -- at least in our former innocence -- have liked to believe in the proximity of a Golden Age, when good would triumph and evil be vanquished in a Peaceable Kingdom.

A widespread myth maintains that Christendom was almost paralyzingly obsessed with the expectations of the End as the year 1000 approached. In his entertaining and scholarly work "Century's End," Hillel Schwartz disposes of this myth, but does document how the end of every century of the past millennium has produced a mix of doomsday gloom and high hopes for happier times.

Stephen II, the first French pope, was ruling when the year 1000 arrived. Mr. Schwartz doesn't mention it, but this brilliant, science-minded pope doesn't even refer to the idea of the Imminent End in his abundant correspondence.

The present pope seems more concerned with the symbolic meaning of a new millennium than was this parallel predecessor.

Father Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese. A believer in the two-party system, he plans to celebrate a millennial New Year's Eve in 1999 and again in A.D. 2000.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad