Ticking down to The End

November 07, 1997|By Joseph Gallagher

AS THE illuminated sign on Paris' Eiffel Tower reveals, the millennial countdown has just slipped below 800 days. Every day, 13 percent of Americans think about the changes that the millennium might bring, according to a recent Associated Press poll. Some 11 percent expect the second coming of Jesus Christ in 2000.

But, two years ago, even the Jehovah's Witnesses, who have been giving rain dates for the Millennium since the 1870s, officially discredited date-setting as speculation. In 1516, a Roman Catholic Council condemned all attempts to fix any date pertaining to the Antichrist or The End.

The Bible predicts nothing that would compute to the year 2000 A.D. It mentions ''signs of the end,'' but such signs have been around forever.

Doomsayers have often thought in 1000-year periods for reasons that are not biblical. Taking the Bible literally, they once argued that God (for whom ''a thousand years are as a day'') made the world in seven days. So, history will have 7000-year periods. A millennium ago, some people thought they were on the verge of the final one -- the 1,000-year reign of Jesus.

By various forms of ''arithmetickling,'' the year 2000 has taken on significance for some millennialists. Some figure that God made His first covenant with Abraham around 2000 B.C. Then, Jesus was born 2000 years later. And now . . . (Of course, there's Isaiah 55: 8, attributed to God: ''My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways.'')

The recent series of earthquakes in Assisi has been taken as a worrisome millennial sign by many people -- so much so that the Vatican's top cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, recently revealed that the Third Secret of Fatima is not about the end of the world. In apparitions in Portugal in 1917, the Virgin Mary supposedly gave to some shepherd children three ''secrets,'' which were delivered to the pope.

Church secret

Though it has been vaguely revealed that two of them pertained to events now past, the third has never been disclosed. (Does it speak of the collapse of the church and/or the papacy?) The millennial significance of the final secret has now been denied.

On the international scene, no figure has been more preoccupied with the approaching millennium than Pope John Paul II (who gives it no doom dimension). He seems to have hoped for some closer bond by 2000 A.D. with the world's 300 million or so Orthodox Christians.

During his recent visit to the United States, however, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, in rather unecumenical words, threw cold holy water on that hope. He seemed to imply that the Roman church is in heresy, probably because of two of the chief ecumenical disasters of the past 150 years: the definition of papal infallibility (even in its rather restricted version), and Mary's Immaculate Conception. Both concepts are as biblically unprovable and unclear in tradition as they are unnecessary in practice.

Let me be slightly unecumenical, too. Theologians have long warned against unnecessarily arousing ''irrisio infidelium'' -- the scorn of unbelievers. Patriarch Bartholomew is called ''His All Holiness,'' and refers to himself as ''Our Modesty.'' Of course, Roman Catholics have their papal ''Holiness,'' as well as their Eminences and Excellencies.

Such courtly verbiage invites the ridicule of the modern world (including believers), which is much more aware of human equality, universal dignity, and the human flaws of religious leaders. Jesus himself chided his disciples for their wrangle about who was the greatest among them. ''Let him who is the leader among you be as the servant.''

Pope St. Gregory (590-604 A.D.) was much more evangelical when he called himself ''The servant of the servants of God.'' Pope John XXIII (1958-63) once asked the Vatican newspaper why it couldn't just say ''The Pope,'' instead of ''The August Sovereign.'' A joke captures the sense of humor of that truly Christian man, who was crowned pope 39 years ago on Nov. 4. When told by phone that Jesus had returned to Earth and was approaching a New York church office, he advised: ''Everybody look busy.''

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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