Discerning the Signs of Times

One of the things that most caught my attention when I arrived at the Better World Service for Animation was “The Reading of the Signs of the Times”.  Those were the first years of my priesthood, my mind still full with “theologies”; it was a true novelty to feel myself included in a group to read reality from a critical consciousness.  I still remember the dynamics:  gather facts and happenings, organize them in groups of events, carry out a prophetic discernment in light of the Word of God, and finally make a commitment.

During the 1990’s, this exercise for “Reading the Signs of the Times” was no longer carried out in the Promoting Group as such. Some topics took the lead for reflection in order to update the message of the group. I had the chance to participate in the groups that reflected on the following topics:  secularization, liberation, participation, justice, and solidarity.

I have to recognize that for me this was the best university; I have preferred it to any other because we were dealing with the reality of the world; we would read the works of expert philosophers, theologians, sociology scholars, pastoral experts and so forth, and above all, there was a clear dynamic to follow which gave unity to the whole process, even though there was not much “life”.

Updating the Exercises has urged me to continue.  There are two issues that have helped me face the challenge of this process of updating. First of all, something that in Europe is felt with certain keenness:  Our world is a globalized world, it is multicultural, pluri-religious and with a growing complexity that is subject to many interpretations, each one independent from the other (science, history, art, religion…), which accentuates its opaqueness. If we add to this that in the theater of our world there are enormous forces of transformation and manipulation, the task of interpreting the world becomes a task for expert analysts or defenders of minorities and excluded persons…

The second confirmation comes from reading, for the umpteenth time, the “Vocation and Mission of the Promoting Group”, which has as its first characteristic, a prophetic dimension.  We are a group at the service of a prophetic mission that proclaims the Reign announced by Jesus, through the systematic and periodic discernment of the Signs of the Times, carried out in the group, in an attitude of search, open dialogue and prayer.

All this has assisted this commission to carry out a double task of transformation with the updating of the Exercises. The first has been from “reading to listening” and the second, to discern, not so much from a sociological standpoint, but rather from a theological standpoint.

From reading to listening to the signs of the times.

The Reading that we used before as an approach to the exercise began by taking on an analytical and objective attitude; we would begin with the events and situations that were later grouped in lists of phenomena which were then analyzed by causes and consequences and then we went on to the discernment process.

Today in our world we need to begin with the interpretation of reality in order to feel that we are implicated from the start.  Therefore the most adequate attitude is to listen to reality –a listening which is open to sharing with other people and the context in which we live…

Listening is the first of our senses we need to activate, which will also help to become aware of ourselves.  To listen makes us open to life.  To listen is to be quiet, to be calm, to observe, to pay attention and process the information we receive. To listen is to allow others to express themselves.  It is an act of respect for others.  To listen is to open a door or a window, even build a bridge, so others are welcomed to enter.  To listen is to experience whatever comes to us.

The Itineraries have helped me to assert that to listen is not a technique, it is an attitude we assume for whatever is real to be said, to be voiced. It constitutes a deep spiritual attitude which is open to prayer, to listen to the Word which at the beginning is “hear”… For the people of Israel it was a cry:  “Shema Israel” –Hear Oh Israel– .  In the Gospel we are told:  “This is my beloved son, hear him…”

From a sociological to a theological standpoint

The Reading of the Signs of the Times that we conducted years ago undoubtedly opened new horizons.  However, little by little, the participation by local groups decreased.  For a few years now, this exercise has not been carried out by the Promoting Group, and this seems significant.  That is why we feel that with the Itineraries, we are recovering something that is essential to the church and to the Promoting Group.

The Reading that we used to carry out, was in agreement with what the Sub-commission Signa Temporum, had prepared.  This sub-commission was in charge of the sociological analysis that appears in Gaudium et Spes. They defined the events as:  “Phenomena which, because of their generalized extent and frequency, characterize an epoch and through which the needs and aspirations of the humanity are expressed”.  Due however to the evolution of the world, which also helps to develop the expression of faith, it is necessary to recover the biblical view, that was debated, without any doubt, during Vatican II, although the sociological view of the council fathers, from central Europe, prevailed.

If we read the Scriptures, will we find the expression of the Signs of the Times only once.  It appears in the Gospel of Matthew, and refers to the messianic times:   The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.  He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.  (Matthew 16,1-3; see also Luke 12,54-57).

Jesus had said that a totally new time had come:  the Reign of God.  From a quantitative or chronological time, both John the Baptist and Jesus’ time almost coincided, however from a theological point of view, the time for John still has to do with divine judgment, whereas for Jesus it was the time for salvation. Pharisees and Sadducees, ask Jesus to demonstrate with some sort of sign from above that the times had changed, that the time of the Reign of God had arrived.  But, not wanting to satisfy that demand, he answered that if the atmospheric times were sufficient to foresee the weather, then Jesus’ words and deeds should be enough to evidence that the Reign of God had arrived.

John XXIII would be the first pope to speak of the Signs of the Times, and did so when he convoked the II Vatican Council, and used the biblical expression citing the text from Matthew. “Following Jesus’ recommendation when he says:  “Indeed, making our own Jesus’ recommendation that we learn to discern “the signs of the times” (Mt 16:4), it seems to us that we can make out, in the midst of so much darkness, more than a few indications that enable us to have hope for the fate of the Church and of humanity.” (Apostolic Constitution, Humanae Salutis, Pope John XXIII, Convocation of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council 25 December 1961.).

The differences between the sociological and biblical meanings become apparent:

  • On the one hand the modern meaning of the Signs of the Times, has to have bearing on phenomena sufficiently generalized in order to be a characteristic of the era; in the biblical sense it could be a minor phenomenon, so small that it could even be a grain of mustard (cf. Matthew 13, 31-32).
  • While the biblical sense sees, as signs of the times, those events dealing with salvation, in the modern sense, events of downfall can also be seen as signs of the times.

From this experience of interpretation from the biblical sense, we are assisted by the connection with the dynamic of the Reign that Jesus not only explains, but announces with deeds and parables that still today continue to be relevant and active. This discovery is not merely a cold revelation. It means that we are open to the dynamism of the Reign of God, that sets into motion something totally new and that guides our worries and our wishes towards the profound recognition of others.

This is one of the main objectives of the Itineraries – “Listening to the Signs of the Times”—

To recognize women and men, and through this exercise stimulate their interest so they commit to the prophetic vocation of denouncing while announcing.  This is our service to a Better World.

Nacho González

For sharing:

  • What experience do you have regarding the Reading/listening to the Signs of the Times?
  • What issues or questions do you ask yourself, and wish to share with others?
  • What consequences does this have for your life and service of MBW.

One thought on “Discerning the Signs of Times”

  1. Très bon et édifiant article. merci à Natcho pour cet acte de charité. nous avons besoin continuellement d’écouter les murmures du monde qui nous appellent à rendre l’Evangile crédible aujourd’hui pour les hommes de notre temps.
    Courage au SMM

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