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The Problem of Christian Prophecy (cont'd)

If we look at the history of the Church, it becomes clear that most of the mystic prophets were women. This is a very interesting fact that could assist the discussion on women priests. What do you think?

RATZINGER: There is an ancient patristic tradition that calls Mary, not priestess but prophetess. The title of prophetess in the patristic tradition is Mary's supreme title. It is in Mary that there is a precise definition of what prophecy really is, that is, this intimate capacity to listen to, perceive, feel, that allows one to sense the consolation of the Holy Spirit, accepting him within oneself, making him fruitful, bringing him fruitful into the world. It might be said, in a sense, without wishing to be categorical, that it is none other than the Marian line that represents in the Church the prophetic dimension. Mary has always been seen by the Fathers of the Church as the archetype of the Christian prophet and it is from her that the prophetic line comes then to enter into the history of the Church. The sisters of the great saints also all belong to this line. Saint Ambrose owes much to his holy sister for the spiritual pathway he embarked upon. The same holds for Basil and Gregory of Nyssa and for Saint Benedict. Further on, in the late Middle Ages, we meet some great female figures and of them we must mention Francesca Romana. In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila was very determinant for John of the Cross and, more generally, for the entire development of faith and devotion. The prophetic female line was of great importance in the history of the Church: Catherine of Siena and Brigid of Sweden could be an illustration. Both addressed a Church which had an apostolic college and where sacraments were administered. So the essential things were still there however threatened with decadence because of internal conflicts. They re-awakened the Church and in it they restored value to evangelical unity, humility and courage and to evangelization.

You said that the definitiveness - which does not have the same meaning as conclusion - of the Revelation in Christ is not definitiveness in terms of propositions. This affirmation is of great interest to the theme of Christian prophecy. One might legitimately ask to what degree the prophets might have something radically new to say in the history of the Church and as regards theology itself. It seems that most of the last great dogmas may be placed in proven direct relation to the revelations of the great prophet saints, such as those of Catherine Labouré as far as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is concerned. This is a rather little explored theme in the books of theology ...

RATZINGER: Yes, these theme has still to be addressed to any real depth. It seems to me that von Balthasar highlighted how, behind every great theologian, there has always been a prophet first. Augustine is unthinkable without the encounter with monacheism, especially with Anthony Abbot. The same holds for Athanasius. Thomas Aquinas would not be conceivable without Dominic, without the charism of the evangelization proper to him. Reading his writings, one notes how important this theme was for him. This theme played an important role in his dispute with the secular clergy and with the University of Paris where he was summoned to reflect on the motivations for the way he lived. He said that the true rule of his Order was found in the Sacred Scriptures and that it is constituted by the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles ('the whole group was united heart and soul'13) and by the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (proclaim the Gospel without claiming anything for yourself14). For Thomas this is the rule of all rules. Any monastic form can but be the realization of this original model which naturally is of an apostolic nature but which the prophetic figure of Dominic made him re-discover in a new way. From the basis of this initial model, Thomas develops his theology as evangelization, that is, as going around with and for the Gospel, being rooted for a start in the unity 'heart and soul' of the community of believers. The same could be said of Bonaventura and Francis of Assisi; the same holds for Hans Urs von Balthasar who is unthinkable without Adrienne von Speyr. I believe that it can be proven that for all the great theologians any new theological elaboration is only possible if the prophetic element has first paved the way. While one proceeds with the mind only, nothing new will ever happen. Increasingly more definite systems may well be construed, increasingly subtle questions raised but the true and proper way from which great theology may again flow is not generated by the rational side of theological work but by a charismatic and prophetic thrust. And it is in this sense, I believe, that prophecy and theology go hand in glove. Theology, as theological science in the strict sense, is not prophetic but may only truly become living theology under the thrust and illumination of a prophetic impulse.

The Creed says that the Holy Spirit "has spoken through the prophets". Are "the prophets" those of the Old Testament only or is this also a reference to those of the New?

RATZINGER: To answer that question, one should study the history of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in depth. Undoubtedly here the reference is to Old Testament prophets only (see the use of the perfect tense 'has spoken') and so, as such, the pneumatological dimension of the Revelation is strongly brought out. The Holy Spirit preceeds Christ and prepares the way for him to then introduce all men to the truth. There are various professions of faith in which this dimension is strongly brought out. In the tradition of the eastern Church, the prophets are considered to be an economy of preparation on the part of the Holy Spirit who is already speaking before Christ comes and who speaks in the first person through the prophets. I am convinced that the primary accent is placed on the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who opens the door for Christ to be accepted ex Spiritu Sancto. What happened in Mary by the action of the Holy Spirit (ex Spiritu Sancto) is an event that was under careful preparation for a long time. Mary re-assumes in herself the whole prophecy as the entire economy of the Spirit. The provenance ex Spiritu Sancto of the whole prophecy is then concentrated in her in Christ's conception. To my mind, this does not exclude the ulterior prospect that Christ is always conceived anew ex Spiritu Sancto. Saint Luke himself set the story of Jesus' childhood on a parallel with the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles which speaks to us of the birth of the Church. In the circle of the twelve apostles gathered around Mary the conceptio ex Spiritu Sancto comes about and it happens again in the birth of the Church. For this reason, it might be said that if the text of the Creed also refers only to the Old Testament prophets, it does not mean that the economy of the Holy Spirit may be said to be concluded.

John the Baptist is often indicated as the last of the prophets. How should that be interpreted in your view?

RATZINGER: I think there are numerous reasons for it in many respects. One such is what Jesus himself said: 'It was towards John that all the prophecies of the prophets and of the Law were leading'15; then the kingdom of God will come. Here Jesus himself is declaring John to be a conclusive point and that afterwards, someone apparently less grand will come but who is in reality the greatest in the kingdom of God, which is to say, Jesus himself16. With these words, the Baptist is still kept within the Old Testament framework but as such he represents the key to the door of the New Covenant. In this sense, the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament prophets. This is also the proper understanding of John who is the last before Christ, he who carries the flame of the whole prophetic movement and hands it to Christ. He brings to completion all that the prophets did so that, in Christ, hope would be born. He thus concludes the work of the prophets in the Old Testament sense. It is important to specify that he himself does not present himself as a soothsayer but simply as one who calls people prophetically to conversion and who is therefore renewing and up-dating the Messianic promise of the Old Testament. Of the Messiah he says: 'Standing among you is one unknown to you'17. Even if this proclamation does contain a prediction, John remains faithful to the prophetic model which is not to foretell the future but to announce that the time has come to convert. John's appeal is invitation to Israel to return to itself and convert in order to recognize, at the hour of salvation, Him whom Israel has always expected and who is now here. John personifies therefore the last of the prophets of the past and, then the specific economy of hope of the Old Testament. What will come after will be another type of prophecy. For this reason the Baptist may be called the last of the Old Testament prophets. This does not mean, however, that after him the prophecy is finished. For, this would conflict with Saint Paul's teaching when he says in his first letter to the Thessalonians: 'Do not stifle the Spirit or despise the gift of prophecy'18.

In a certain sense, there is a difference between the prophecy of the New and Old Testaments for the very fact that Christ entered into history. But if one looks at the very essence of prophecy, which is to instill in the Church the Word heard from God, there appears to be no difference at all ...

RATZINGER: Yes, a difference with, effectively, a basic common structure. The difference lies in the way of relating to Christ, as to Him who comes, to Him who has already come or who has still to return. The reason why the time of the Church on the structural plane is the same as the Old Testament, or at least very similar and in which its newness lies deserves to be studied, gone into further.

One often sees in theology the tendency to radicalize the differences between the Old and New Testaments. This way of presenting the differences often appears artificial, based on abstract principles as opposed to factual elements ...

RATZINGER: Radicalizing the differences without wanting to see the intimate unity of the history of God with men is an error which the Fathers of the Church did not make. They proposed a tripartite schema, "umbra, imago, veritas", in which the New Testament is the imago. Thus the Old and New Testaments are not set in opposition to one another as shadow and reality but, within the triad of shadow, image and reality, the expectation of the definitive fulfilment is kept alive and the time of the New Testament, the time of the Church is seen as an ulterior plane, a more elevated one but still on the pathway of the promise. This is a point which to date, it seems to me, has not been given sufficient consideration. The Fathers of the Church stressed with force the intermediate nature of the New Testament in which not all the promises have been fulfilled yet. Christ came in the flesh, but the Church still awaits his full Revelation in glory.

Perhaps this is another reason why the spirituality of many prophetic figures bears an eschatological mark ...

RATZINGER: I think - without conceding anything to infatuation with things apocalyptic - that this essentially belongs to the prophetic nature. The prophets are the ones who bring out Christianity's dimension of hope. They are the channels of access to what must still come to pass and, therefore, allowing us to go beyond time to attain what is essential and definitive. This eschatological character, this thrust to go beyond time, is certainly part of the prophetic spirituality.

If we set prophetic eschatology in relation to hope, the picture changes completely. It is no longer a message that instills fear but one that opens up a horizon on which the entire creation promised through Christ is fulfilled ...

RATZINGER: That the Christian faith does not inspire fear but overcomes it is a fundamental fact. This principle must constitute the basis of our testimony and of our spirituality. But let's go back for a moment to what we said earlier. It is of extreme importance to specify in which sense Christianity is the fulfilment of the promise and in which sense it is not. I believe that there is a close tie between the current crisis of faith and the insufficient clarification of this question. There are three inherent dangers here. The first is that the promises of the Old Testament and the expectation of the salvation of men are seen only in an immanent way in the sense of new and better structures, of perfect effectiveness. Conceived in this way, Christianity proves to be just a defeat. From this basic perspective, there has been an attempt to replace Christianity with ideologies of faith in progress and then with ideologies of hope which are just variations of Marxism. The second danger is to see Christianity as something solely associated with the afterlife, something purely spiritual and individualistic thus negating the totality of the human reality. The third danger, particularly menacing at times of crisis and historical turning points, is to take refuge in infatuations with things apocalyptic. In opposition to all of this, it is increasingly urgent that the authentic structure of promise and fulfilment inherent in the Christian faith is presented in a comprehensible and liveable way.

One often notes great tension between the purely contemplative and apophatic mysticism and the prophetic mysticism, of words. Karl Rahner19 pointed out this tension between the two types of mysticism. Some claim that the contemplative and apophatic mysticism is the most elevated of the two, more pure and spiritual. Some passages in John of the Cross are explained in that light. Others think that apophatic mysticism, in the final analysis, is extraneous to Christianity because the Christian faith is essentially religion of the Word. 20

RATZINGER: Yes, I would say that the authentically Christian mysticism also has a missionary dimension. It does not just seek to elevate the individual but confers a task upon him putting him in contact in the Spirit with the Word, with Christ, with the Logos. This point is strongly emphasized by Thomas Aquinas. Before Thomas it was said: monk first and then mystic, or priest first and then theologian. Thomas does not accept this because the mystical mandate is fulfilled in mission. And mission is not the lowest rung of life as, by contrast, Aristotle thought. He believed intellectual contemplation to be the highest rung of life which, therefore, knows no further mission. This is not a Christian concept, Thomas says, because the most perfect form of life is the mixed kind, that is, mysticism and mission in the service of the Gospel. Teresa of Avila expounded this concept very clearly. She places mysticism in relation to Christology, thus conferring upon it a missionary structuring. By that I have no wish to exclude that the Lord may inspire Christian mystics who have no type of mission within the Church; but I would specify that Christology, as the basis and measure of all Christian mysticism (Christ and the Holy Spirit are inseparable), is indicative of another structure. Jesus Christ's 'face to face' with the Father includes his 'being for the sake of others', it contains within it 'being for everyone'. If mysticism is essentially an entering into communion with Christ, this 'being for' is a connotation from within.

Many Christian prophets, like Catherine of Siena, Brigid of Sweden and Faustina Kowalska attribute their prophetic discourses to revelations of Christ. These revelations are often defined by theology as private revelations. But the concept appears to be very reductive because the prophecy is always for the whole Church and is never purely private ...

RATZINGER: In theology, the concept of 'private' does not mean regarding only the person involved and no one else. Rather, it is an expression of the degree of importance, as is the case, for example, with 'private Mass'. That is to say that the 'revelations' of Christian mystics and prophets can never aspire to the same level as biblical Revelation; they can only lead to it and they must measure themselves by it. But that does not mean that these types of revelation are not important for the Church in its entirety. Lourdes and Fatima are the proof that they are important. In the final analysis, they are but an appeal to the biblical Revelation and, for this very reason, they are important.

The history of the Church proves that none of this happens without injury on the part of one side or the other. How would you explain this dilemma?

RATZINGER: It has ever been so. The prophetic impact cannot come about without reciprocal suffering. The prophet is called in a specific way to the imitation of suffering: to be ready to suffer and share the cross with Christ is his real yardstick. He does not try to be self-imposing. His message is verified and made fruitful in the cross.

It is frustrating to see that most of the Church's prophetic figures were rejected during their lifetimes. A position of criticism or rejection seems almost inevitable. This is the case of the majority of Christian prophets and prophetesses ...

RATZINGER: Yes it's true. Ignatius of Loyola was imprisoned and the same happened to John of the Cross. Brigid of Sweden was on the point of being condemned at the Council of Basel. But by tradition the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is very cautious in cases of mystic claims. This attitude is more than justified after all given that there is a great deal of false mysticism and many pathological cases. A very critical attitude is therefore necessary to waive any risk of sensationalism fantasizing and superstition. The mystical is manifest in suffering in obedience and in capacity for endurance. Thus this voice lingers as time goes on. As far as the Church is concerned it must be careful not to 'kill the prophets'21 if it is to avoid rebuke.

This last question could be a little embarrassing. It regards a contemporary prophetic figure - the Greek Orthodox Vassula Ryden. She is considered by many faithful, and by many theologians, priests and bishops of the Catholic Church to be a messenger of Christ. Her messages, which have been translated into 34 languages since 1991, are known throughout the world. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has, however, declared negative on the issue. The 1995 Notification on the obscure points as well as the positive aspects of her writings was interpreted by some commentators as a condemnation. Is that the case?

RATZINGER: You have touched on a very problematical issue. No, the Notification is a warning, not a condemnation. From the strictly procedural point of view, no person may be condemned without a trial and without being given the opportunity to air their views first. What we say is that there are many things which are not clear. There are some debateable apocalytpic elements and ecclesiological aspects which are not clear. Her writings contain many good things but the grain and the chaff are mixed up. That is why we invited Catholic faithful to view it all with a prudent eye and to measure it by the yardstick of the constant faith of the Church.

Is the procedure to clarify the question continuing?

RATZINGER: Yes, and during the clarification process the faithful must be prudent, maintaining a discerning attitude. There is no doubt that there is an evolution in the writings which does not yet seem to have concluded. We must remember that being able to set oneself up as the word and image of interior contact with God, even in the case of authentic mysticism, always depends on the possibilities of the human soul and its limitations. Unlimited trust should only be placed in the real Word of the Revelation that we encounter in the faith transmitted by the Church.

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Notes

  1. Niels Christian Hvidt has been addressing the concept of Christian prophecy since 1994. Prophecy and Revelation is the title of his theology thesis which is still to be published but which was presented to the Theology Faculty of the University of Copenhagen in January 1997 and awarded the University's Gold Medal. A summary of the thesis was published in Studia theologica. Journal of Scandinavian Theology 52 (1998), pages 147-161. It was entitled Prophecy and Revelation. A Theological Survey on the Problem of Christian Prophecy. Hvidt would like to express his thanks to Dr. Yvonne Maria Werner of the Institute of History at the University of Lund for her assistance in the preparation of this interview.
  2. "But no orthodox theology has ever concerned itself with one of them1 : if, that is, they remain true prophets in the post-apostolic Church, how their spirit may be recognized and distinguished, what function they should serve in the Church, how they relate to the ecclesiastical hierarchy or what significance their mission assumes for the history of the Church in its interior and exterior life" (K. Rahner, Visionen und Prophezeiungen, Freiburg 1958, pages 21-22.
  3. J. Ratzinger, Die Geschichtstheologie des hl. Bonaventura, München 1959.
  4. cf J. Ratzinger, La mia vita, Ricordi (1927-1977), Cinisello Balsamo 1997, page70 and following.
  5. cf ibidem, pages 68 and following. cf J. Ratzinger, "Auf Christus schauen. Vorüberlegungen zum Sinn des Jubiläumsjahres 2000", in Deutsche Tagespost, No. 31, March 11 1997, page 5.
  6. ibidem.
  7. J. Ratzinger, Wesen und Auftrag der Theologie, Freiburg 1993, page 106.
  8. cf Deuteronomy 34,10.
  9. Ephesians 1, 23; cf Ephesians 4, 10.
  10. cf John 16, 13.
  11. cf John 16, 5 and following.
  12. Ephesians 2, 20; cf Ephesians 4, 11.
  13. Acts 4, 32.
  14. cf Matthew 10, 8-10.
  15. Matthew 11, 13.
  16. cf Matthew 11, 11-15.
  17. John 1, 26.
  18. I Thessalonians 5, 19-20.
  19. ... indeed, it mght be said with a little exaggeration perhaps that the history of mystic theology is the history of the devaluation of the prophetic in favor of a revaluation of the pure 'infused contemplation' " (K. Rahner, op. cit., page 21).
  20. "One might say that, in a certain sense, the duplex unity of God and of the 'signs' of the visionary, unity which acquires from the signs an historical nature, corresponds more to Christianity's fundamental nature, seen as pure 'mystical union', devoid of images and in the face of which the old problem always raises its head, if this piety of the pure transcendance of the Spirit is properly Christian" (ibidem, page 15).
  21. cf Luke 13, 34 and Matthew 23, 37-39.

DIDASCALIE

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on pilgrimage to Jerusalem

On these pages, details of the Portal of the Virgin, Parma Baptistry, the work of Benedetto Antelami, 13th century. The lunette arch features prophets holding golden discs bearing images of the apostles. Here, the prophet Ezra and the apostle Bartholomew

The lunette. In the central part from left, the adoration of the Magi, the Madonna and Child and Joseph's dream. At the extremes of the architrave of the Portal of the Virgin, an inscription reveals when work began on the construction of the Baptistry: 1196

The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the apostles Peter and Paul


1 the prophets