Signs of the Times

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The Biblical expression "signs of the times" has been used with a general meaning of significant events and trends in many languages for centuries. It was given a specific theological meaning at Vatican II in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Today's World: Gaudium et spes (art. 4). There it refers to those events in history characteristic of an epoch, which, if properly read, can reveal the presence or the absence of God.

History of the Term at the Council. "Signs of the times" was first used in a theological context by Pope John XXIII in the Bull Humanae salutis (Dec. 25, 1961), in which he convened the Vatican Council, to meet in the next year. After dismissing those who see only darkness burdening the face of the earth, the Pope stated:

We renew our confidence in our Savior who has not left the world he redeemed. Instead we make our own the recommendation that one should know how to distinguish the signs of the times (Mt 16:4) and we seem to see now in the midst of so much darkness a few indications that argue well for the fate of the Church and humanity (sec. 3).

While the Council was in session, Pope John published the encyclical letter Pacem in terris (April 13, 1963) in which the term "Signs of the Times" was used three times, not however in the text of the letter, but as the sub-titles to three distinct sections (par. 29, 126, 142). Under this heading the pope noted three events in particular as being significant for the knowledge of God and religion: the progressive development of the working classes, the growing role of women in public life, and the gradual disappearance of colonialism.

A year later, Pope Paul VI used the term in Ecclesiam suam (Aug. 6, 1964), where he spoke of the "signs of the times" as part of a dialogue between the Church and the world.

From the time of Pacem in terris the term "signs of the times" was used in successive drafts of sections of the pastoral constitution. "Signs of the Times" was the name given to a subcommission preparing the Introductory Statement of the Constitution.

Origin and Meaning. The origin of the term"signs of the times" is the Gospel (Mt. 16.1.3):

The Pharisees and the Sadducees came along; and as a test asked Jesus to show them some sign in the sky. He gave them this reply: 'In the evening you say "Red sky at night, the day will be bright" but in the morning, "Sky red and gloomy, the day will be stormy." If you know how to interpret the look of the sky can you not read the signs of the times (semeia tou kairon)? An eager faithless age is eager for a sign but no sign will be given it except that of Jonah.' With that he left them (NAB).

In this context, the "signs of the times" are the person and activity of Jesus which signify that these days are decisive for repentance and judgment. They are clear indications of the coming of the Kingdom, signs which should be able to be read by all. In a more general context, the "signs of the times" could be said of events which, by qualities within the events themselves, manifest the presence and activity of God and call the Church to faith and deeper understanding.

The Biblical context is both christological and eschatological. World Council of Churches observers and some fathers of the Council objected to the use of the term for contemporary events. For this reason, the sub-commission removed the term from the text submitted to the third and fourth sessions of the Council. It was inserted in the final text without, however, its Biblical citation; the term was to be understood only in the sense in which Popes John and Paul had used it.

Understood sociologically the "signs of the times" are those events in human history which, by their widespread or frequent appearance, or by some dramatic quality so characterize an era that in them the needs, achievements, and aspirations of men and women present themselves. Reflected in the light of the Gospel, they are signs of the divine saving will in history. From these "signs of the times" the Church is able to understand its teaching better, to express it more clearly and fully, and to adapt its pastoral action.

The most telling weakness in any theory of interpreting events as signs of God's presence is its optimism: it fails to take into account the ambiguity which baffles any interpretation of human history. Pastor Lukas Vischer, a World Council of Churches observer at Vatican II, wrote the subcommission:

to recognize the signs of the times one ought to distinguish the voice of God from any other voice no matter how persuasive it might be. Furthermore, the world is ambiguous and evil is mixed up with the good evil is powerful in this moment of history; and when we compare it to the proclamation of the Reign of Christ it has an extraordinary power

The Council suggested no criteria for this prophetic task except study, discussion, prayer, and the assistance of the Holy Spirit in the Church (art. 44). Nor was this ever assumed to be easy.

Motivated by this faith it labors to decipher authentic signs of God's presence and purpose in the happenings, needs, and desires in which this people has a part along with other men of our age. The Council wishes to assert in the light (of faith) those values which are most highly praised today and to relate them to their divine source. For insofar as they stem from endowments conferred by God on man, these values are exceedingly good. Yet they are often wrenched from their rightful function by the taint in man's heart and we stand in need of purification (art. II).

In the years that have followed the Council the phrase "signs of the times" has been applied frequently to descriptions of contemporary events which have an impact on the life of faith or on the Church. Papal letters and statements of the Synod of Bishops offer an analysis of contemporary events in the manner of Gaudium et spes as a preface or introduction, especially if the document deals with questions of social doctrine. However the term "signs of the times" is rarely used of this description. Almost nothing has been written about "signs of the times" as a font of revelation or a source of theology since the studies published in 196769 immediately after the Council, by the theologians who played a role in the preparation of the Pastoral Constitution when the concept was new and exciting.

Bibliography: c. moeller, "History of the Constitution" and "Preface and Introductory Statement," Commentary on Documents of Vatican II, v. 5, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (New York 1969) 1114. m.-d. chenu, "Les Signes des Temps," 87 Nouvelle Revue Theologique, 2939.

[m. heath]