“Their instincts are more keen and more certain than those of the eagles.”
Fr Henry James Coleridge wrote prolifically about the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In this extract, he considers how the Church may appear in the final days.
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ – On the End of the World
Image: Demir’s Lightning. Wiki Commons CC
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The Return of the King – Discourses on the Latter Days
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ
The Church in the Last Days – Part I: How will we see her?
The state of the world in the last days, compared with today
We have been endeavouring to consider one by one, my brethren in our Lord, a series of these features of the last time which are more or less constant and permanent in the world, because they are the natural results of elements and principles which are almost always at work among men.
We have considered the mischief that will be produced, that has been already produced, in our time and in times earlier than our own, by the decay of faith and the increase of false creeds and false doctrines, by the waning and growing cold of Christian charity, by the immense development of the national spirit, by the encroachments of the civil power on the rights of the Church, and by the corresponding undermining of the civil power through the spirit of lawlessness — a sure effect of civil encroachments upon the spiritual sphere, by the increase of luxury, the engrossment of mankind in the enjoyment of temporal and sensual pleasures, and by the immense corruption and blindness and hardness of heart which must naturally ensue from these causes.
Lastly, we have considered that in the latter days – as has been the case, at least partially, in our own – the spiritual enemies of God and man will be allowed a large measure of licence, for the delusion and perversion of mankind.
All these are great elements and powers of evil. Each one of them by itself is a great danger, and when they all combine in a larger extent of development and influence than before, in any one generation, there is at least reason for thinking that such a generation is not unlike that on which the end of the world will come.
And finally, we have considered how the prophecies tell us that all the evil principles and elements in society are to be summed up, and, as it were, personified in the appearance of one great champion; the hero of his day, as men will account him; the arch-enemy of God, as the Church will know him to be; who is already named in the New Testament as the Antichrist, the opponent and rival of our Blessed Lord.
Where will the Church be?
Now it is certainly natural for us to ask: what, in the face of all this collection and combination of the powers and influences of evil in the world, will have become of the Church of God?
We know, from the words of our Lord, that the gates of Hell are not to prevail against her. We know far more than that, for we know that she is furnished and equipped with Divine power, and that she has within the range of her resources even more than is required for the perfect “healing of the nations,” if the nations of the world would be healed.
How is it then to be with her in the midst of all these tempests and woes, these birth-pangs of the new creation? What will be her lot and her conduct, what will be the strength of her children, how will they bear themselves in these last struggles, and how especially will it be with the provisions which she supplies for the weak and the timid and the helpless – on whom, if we are to judge from the history of her first conflicts in the world, the battle will fall as well as on the strong and well-trained soldiers of Jesus Christ?
For an answer to these natural questionings, we may go back once more to the great prophecy of the last days in which the words of the text are contained. We have had to refer to it over and over again, and this is not wonderful, for the words of our Lord on any great subject of Christian thought must be the great storehouse of our information on that subject.
Our Lord is speaking to His Apostles on Mount Olivet, at a very short interval of time before His Passion. The key-note of His whole discourse is given in the words with which it opens according to the account recorded for us by St. Matthew: “Take heed that no man seduce you.” The prophecy relates to two questions which had been asked, one as to the destruction of Jerusalem, the other as to the end of the world; and, as you know, these two events are in our Lord’s mind as the answers.
I need not go through that Divine discourse. You will remember how earnestly He speaks of the danger of seduction. Many are to come in His Name, teachers of heresies, authors of schisms, declaring that they come from Him and speak His truth, and they are to seduce many. There are to be wars and rumours of wars, the latter perhaps not less disquieting than the former. There are to be national strifes, there are to be earthquakes and famines and pestilence.
They are themselves to be persecuted — even hated of all nations, for the sake of His Name. There are to be scandals, and false brethren, betraying one another, hating one another. Iniquity is to abound, and charity is to grow cold. The Gospel is to be preached in all the world, and then the end will come.
Then, after a passage about the sign of the destruction of Jerusalem, our Lord returns to the general picture. The Apostles, or Christians through them, are warned not to believe people who say to them, “Lo, here is Christ, lo there.”
The false Christs and prophets shall even show great signs and wonders. “If they shall say to you, Behold, He is in the desert, go ye not out; behold, He is in the closets, believe it not.” And then He gives two ways in which the presence of the Son of Man is to be known. “For as lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even unto the west, so shall also the coming” – or the presence – “of the Son of Man be.”
The two ways of finding Our Lord
That is the first way in which men may know where our Lord is to be found: His presence will be as manifest and as unmistakeable as the sheet of lightning, which darts in one single moment from one end of heaven to the other. Who can doubt where the lightning is? There is no part of the heavens in which it is not. It is not here or there, it is everywhere.
And then our Lord gives a second sign of His presence, which is altogether different from the former: “Wheresoever the body is, there also will the eagles be gathered together.”
Thus our Lord in this place does what He was so often wont to do in the parables, in which He set forth the secrets of His Kingdom. He uses one image to express one part of a truth, and then an entirely different image to express another part of the same truth.
First, He implies that His presence in the Church will be unmistakeable, because it is everywhere at once, and then He uses, as the image of the faculty of discerning His presence, the marvellous instinct which brings together the eagles over their prey.
For travellers tell us that the camel or other animal that dies of exhaustion in the midst of the desert, may fall to the ground on some spot from which, if you look all round the horizon, east and west, and north and south, you will not see a single bird of prey in sight, or any rock or eyrie where its nest may be.
And yet, before the poor quarry breathes its last breath, the eagles will be there from every point of the compass, ready to fasten on their helpless prey.
Need to tell the famished eagles where the reeking carcass lies!
It can draw them to itself from every corner of the skies.
They come, guided by instinct or nature which God has given them. And so it will be, and so it is, with our Lord. Those that are His know Him, and can find Him out in His Church. Their instincts are more keen and more certain than those of the eagles. There have been saints on earth who would enter a large church, and make their way without guide or note or mark to the altar where the Blessed Sacrament is kept.
These are special and personal gifts, the occasional reward of immense devotion and intense purity of soul, just as other saints have had the gift of discovering the foulness of sin in the souls of those who came to them by their air or their look.
But there is also a general power of perception as to our Lord’s presence in the Church, in confirmation of and as a supplement to her great external notes and marks, which are evident to all alike, and this instinctive knowledge of Him will be a further safeguard to those who love Him, in the dark days which shall go before His second Advent.
One way for all; one for his friends
Thus we have our Blessed Lord telling us, in the passage of which we are speaking, that there are two very different ways by which His presence may be known. I say His presence, because, even if we are to limit the direct meaning of the words before us to that which shall be at the time of His second coming, (for which limitation there seems no certain reason in the context,) still it would remain true that what is said by Him of that second coming, cannot but be true in its measure of His continual presence in the Catholic Church.
The one of these methods of His presence or coming is manifest and unmistakeable to all, the other is for the few – or at least, not for all. The one is for His friends and for His enemies alike, the other is only for His friends. That is, the one is like the shining of the lightning from one end of the heavens to the other, the other is like the secret attraction by which the eagles are drawn unerringly to their prey.
And we find our Lord using this last image, that of which the words of the text speak, in another place where He does not use the first. He is speaking of the last days, and saying how from the same field and the same bed one shall be taken and another left. That is, side by side with those who belong to our Lord, and are to be caught up to meet Him in the air, there will be those who do not belong to Him, and who will be left for destruction.
“I say to you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed, the one shall be taken and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together, the one shall be taken and the other shall be left. Two men shall be in the field, the one shall be taken and the other shall be left.”
And the Evangelist goes on:
“[They] answering say to Him, Where, Lord? Who said to them, Wheresoever the body shall be, thither will the eagles also be gathered together.”
Here there is question of some secret attraction or discernment, which is not common to all, like that indication of the presence of our Lord, which can be compared to the lightning, seen from one end of the sky to the other — all men see the lightning; the eagles alone can discern the body on which they are to be fed in.
So it is, at all events, my brethren, with the knowledge of our Lord in His holy Catholic Church.
How we know the Church
Ever since the time when she became the great feature in the world that she now is; ever since she came forth from the catacombs into which the fury of the persecution had driven her, she has been cognizable to the whole world by means of what we call her visible Notes.
These Notes, from the earliest times, have been enshrined in the Catholic Creeds; and never has there been but one body on earth to which they would truly and plainly apply. She is herself her own great witness, and her history, and her powers, and her institutions, and her adaptation to the needs of mankind, show her to be as Divine as she claims to be.
They show her to be this in two ways — first, positively, by the manner in which she has proved that she can cure all the ills of society, and has created a happiness and a beauty and a dignity in human life which did not exist before, whenever she is allowed her way and not hindered from the exercise of her beneficent influences.
She has shown the same negatively also, by a proof which is unfortunately still giving its character to the days in which we live, and which will probably continue to be more sadly exemplified as the years roll on — in the manner in which paganism, and barbarism, and materialism, and cruelty, and lust, and ambition become magnified as the great dominant influences in the world — and in a denial of the supremacy of conscience, of the spirituality of the soul, and of other such fundamental truths, which becomes rife and wide-spread the moment her salutary rule is thrown off and her teaching disregarded.
But these ways of knowing the Church are open to all, the last as well as the first, and there are now many intellectual men who, though not Christians, do not shrink from the candid acknowledgment that there is no alternative between the full Catholic creed and the denial of all theism itself.
But what of the second way of knowing the Church – the way for the friends of Christ alone? We will consider this further in the next part.
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ – On the End of the World
The Return of the King – Discourses on the Latter Days by Fr H.J. Coleridge. Also available for UK readers and at the Internet Archive.
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 St. Matt. xxiv. 4.
 St. Luke xvii. 34 — 37