What in the World is Going on in This Sunday’s First Reading?

If you are not prepared for this Sunday’s first reading (Gen 15:5-12, 17-18), you will probably have a difficult time making sense of it. Your homilist might not discuss it so I hope this brief explanation will be helpful. It is not a lengthy reading so we will go all the way through it splitting it into two parts but hopefully not slaughtering it.

The reading begins straightforward enough:

The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

He then said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” “O Lord GOD,” he asked, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God promised Abram (later to be renamed Abraham) countless descendants and possession of the land. Abram then asks God for assurance of this. The rest of the reading tells us just how God assures him.

He answered him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up. Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram stayed with them. As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces. It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

Unless you’re unfamiliar with ancient Near East covenant ceremonies, God’s act of assurance probably seems quite bizarre. But Abram would have been familiar with such ceremonies so it made perfect sense to him.

When two parties entered into a covenant, splitting slaughtered animals in two and walking between them was a symbol of one’s commitment to the covenant promise. It was the equivalent of saying, “Let what has happened to these animals happen to me if I do not keep my word”.

That being the case, God first had Abram slaughter animals and split them in two. Then, appearing as “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch”, God passed between them.

Of course, being slaughtered and split in two could never really happen to God but that’s irrelevant. God was communicating to Abram in terms he could understand. It was an act of “divine condescension”.

In time, God did indeed fulfill his covenant promises as Abram went on to have countless descendants many of whom would eventually possess the Promised Land.

Will Our Next Pope Be the Last, Ushering in the End of the World?

Pope Benedict’s renouncement of the papal office this week has spurred a rash of questions about the purported prophecies of St. Malachy. “Will Benedict’s successor be the last pope?” “Are we headed into a period of great tribulation?” “Will the world end soon?”

The last time we fielded so many such questions at Catholic Answers was about eight years ago shortly after the death of Blessed John Paul II. This makes sense because the prophecies in question concern the identities of popes from the twelfth century to the end of time. This time around it is a little different though because there is only one more pope identified after Benedict XVI: “Petrus Romanus” (Latin for “Peter the Roman”).

St. Malachy was an Irish bishop who lived in the twelfth century. He died in 1148 and his close friend St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote his biography shortly afterward. St. Malachy was canonized in 1190 by Pope Clement III. Throughout this entire period there was never any mention of St. Malachy’s prophecies concerning the identities of future popes. In fact, not until the year 1590–four hundred years after St. Malachy’s canonization–did his prophecies surface.

Interestingly, 1590 was the same year Pope Sixtus V died and his successor was elected. At the time, every pope who had reigned during the prior four hundred forty seven years had been correctly identified by St. Malachy. Sixtus V’s successor, Urban VII, ended that. There was another candidate for the papacy that year who did fit St. Malachy’s prophetic identification but he was not elected. Since that time, interpreters have had to perform contorted acrobatics with St. Malachy’s cryptic prophetic phrases in order to somehow vaguely relate them to the identities of the successive popes. In many cases it just cannot be done. In other cases, doing so is a stretch, at best.

For example, the Latin phrase identifying our current pope is “Gloria olivioe” (“Glory of olives”). To make this fit Pope Benedict, many interpreters follow a train of thought something like this: Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict; St. Benedict founded the Benedictines; formally affiliated with the Benedictines since 1960 is the Order of Our Lady of Mt. Olivet (the Olivetans); thus Pope Benedict XVI is the “Glory of the olives”. It’s something akin to Kevin Bacon’s “six degrees of separation”.

Considering all these facts, most historians have concluded that the purported prophecies were a sixteenth century forgery that failed to sway the electorate of 1590. Nevertheless, the prophecies were published in 1595 and they have continued to be an item of curiosity and speculation ever since, especially whenever a new pope is elected.

In regard to people who still choose to believe in the authenticity of the prophecies today, it is important to note that the prophecies do not actually predict the timing of tribulation or of the end of the world. The Catholic Encyclopedia, published over 100 years ago, explains:

It has been noticed concerning Petrus Romanus, who according to St. Malachy’s list is to be the last pope, that the prophecy does not say that no popes shall intervene between him and his predecessor designated Gloria olivioe. It merely says that he is to be the last, so that we may suppose as many popes as we please before “Peter the Roman”.

St. Malachy, pray for us.

Last Minute Lenten Retreat Idea

ImageLent is just around the corner. In fact, Ash Wednesday is one week from today. Lent is chosen by many parishes as the ideal time to offer retreats, parish missions, and workshops. If you are planning such an event, I have a suggestion: Invite a Catholic Answers speaker to give talks on Vatican II and the Catechism. Doing so could have the added bonus of a plenary indulgence for attendees.

The Apostolic Penitentiary, which issues indulgences, recently announced:

Throughout the Year of Faith—established from 11 October 2012 to 24 November 2013—all individual members of the faithful who are truly repentant, have duly received the Sacrament of Penance and Holy Communion and who pray for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff may receive the Plenary Indulgence in remission of the temporal punishment for their sins, imparted through God’s mercy and applicable in suffrage to the souls of the deceased . . . every time they . . . attend at least three lectures on the Proceedings of the Second Vatican Council and on the Articles of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in any church or suitable place . . .

I sometimes imagine that attending a talk of mine must be a penitential act of itself. This might be true for other speakers, too, so I’m quite happy that, for a limited time, attendees may actually gain an indulgence in the process! To schedule an event at your parish, contact our Catholic Answers Seminar Coordinators at 619-387-7200 or email seminars@catholic.com.

Receiving the Sacraments After Divorce and Remarriage

 I recently got a call at Catholic Answers from a woman who had fallen away from the Church many years ago but had recently come back home after watching EWTN and listening to Catholic Answers Live. Sadly, though, she had been told by a deacon at her parish that she could not receive the Eucharist or even go to confession because she had gotten remarried outside the Church after her first marriage ended in divorce. Before she could be fully reconciled with God and the Church, she would need to get an annulment and then have her second marriage convalidated. She was heartbroken to find out that the annulment process could take years to complete. I was happy to tell her that she had another option.


Tragically, the information the woman was given at her parish is the only information many people in her situation ever hear. She was told that she was living in the state of sin and that only an annulment and convalidation could fix that. What she wasn’t told is that she could return to the sacraments right away if she was sorry for her sins and was willing to stop sinning. I explained to her that if she would commit to abstaining from conjugal relations (e.g., live as brother and sister) until her marriage was convalidated  – and there is no guarantee that it ever will be – she could go to confession and receive the Eucharist today! I then read to her from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1650):

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” – the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.

She was in tears as I read that last line. She said that making such a commitment would be only a small sacrifice compared to being unable to receive the sacraments. It was such a relief for her to know that she could hear the joyous words of absolution and receive her Lord again at Mass.  She planned to do both that very evening.

I would like to see the above Catechism paragraph rearranged, moving the last sentence up near the top. After all, that is the only moral option in such a situation. Maybe then that would be the information people in invalid marriages would be given.  Returning Catholics and others coming into the Church as adults are often quite serious about their faith and it is a disservice to them to assume that they are not willing to do what is right.