“The fierce eagles do not give birth to the timid and cowering dove.”
Fr Henry James Coleridge wrote prolifically about the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In this extract, he considers how Catholics may know the Church in the final days – gathering around her like the eagles around the body, as Our Lord says.
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ – On the End of the World
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Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ
Burns and Oates, London
The Church in the Last Days – Part II: How will we know her?
Now, my brethren, it is surely true to say that evidences [we have considered in the previous part], although they are most powerful and most convincing, and although they are the appointed proofs, in many respects, of the Divine mission of the Catholic Church, are still in the main external. They are evidences such as can be grasped by those outside the Church herself, and indeed we see it constantly to be the case, as I have just now said, that they are acknowledged to be most cogent even by those who are not converted by them.
It is not to depreciate these proofs of the Church that we say there are evidences of another kind which address themselves more to those who are inside the pale of Catholicism than to those who are outside. Such are the proofs on which devotion feeds, after conversion has taken place, which are the delight and the support of those who do not need external evidence.
It is very natural that we should find the Apostles speaking of the existence of such evidences to their converts, because in the beginnings of the Church, although there were not wanting proofs of her divinity, similar to those afforded by miracles, by the fulfilment of prophecy, and the like, still the evidences of the great Notes of the Church, by which we now prove her to be what she asserts that she is, could not, in the nature of things, be existing or be recognized in their fulness.
Surely, if we believe the Holy Spirit of God to be shed abroad in our hearts, it is natural to suppose also that He will make His presence felt in some secret but most convincing way. You remember what the men of that Samaritan city said to the woman who had first informed them about our Lord and His conversation with her — “We now believe, not for thy saying, for we ourselves have heard Him and know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.”
Not vital immanence, but confirmation of external witness
How can anyone live in the constant use of the holy sacraments, a life of prayer and intercourse with our Lord – how can anyone watch over the movements and breathings of his own conscience, and know what it is to have holy inspirations, and to walk in the continual presence of God – and not at the same time have an experimental knowledge of the actual truth of the claims of his religion and of the Church in which these blessings fall to his lot?
Faithfulness to grace, purity of intention, continual self-discipline and diligence in the practice of the Christian virtues — I do not say that the light and the peace and the joy which these things generate are infallible guides, without the external witness of the Church, much less against that witness; yet when they coincide with the evidence by which we know where the Catholic Church is, it is not possible but that they must add a security and a certainty to the soul – just as an impure or careless life tends, in great measure, to impair even the vividness of faith.
See how confidently St. John appeals to this kind of evidence in his Epistle to his own spiritual children, among whom there had been some seducers attempting their perversion:
“These things have I written to you concerning them that seduce you. And as for you, let the unction which you have received of Him abide in you. And you have no need that any man teach you, but as His unction teacheth you of all things, and is truth and no lie, and as it hath taught you, abide in Him.”
This is the language of one who can trust those to whom he is speaking, because he can reckon on the work of the Holy Spirit of God in their souls. And it seems to me to be confirmed by the language of our Lord Himself in the passage from which the text is taken, where He tells us that there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and show great signs and wonders, “insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect.”
“If possible,” He says, and by that He implies that it is not possible for the elect to be deceived. The false signs and wonders will all be external evidences, by means of which the teachers of falsehood will be allowed, in that dark day, to parody the external evidences of the Catholic Church by what seem to be similar prodigies worked in favour of their own errors. But the elect of God, the faithful and true followers of the Church, will be guarded against the snare by a two-fold shield, besides the evidence of the great worldwide notes.
In the first place they will have the shield of prophecy. For all these seductions are foretold by our Lord, and so they cannot harm those who know them beforehand and are prepared to expect them; and this, besides the notes of the Church, will be, so to say, the external shield of the elect.
And in the second place they will be protected by that interior unction of which St. John speaks, by the light and fire and fragrance and instinct of the Holy Ghost in their hearts, whereby they will be so united to our Lord as to be able to find Him out and cling to Him, even when the world is over clouded with the darkness of evil, and to endure all the contradictions of the last persecution, as St. Paul says of Moses, “seeing Him that is invisible.”
The abiding primacy of the Church’s teaching over inspirations
My brethren, you may know that men have often been led astray by putting too much faith in their own interior feelings or convictions, and in what they deemed Divine inspirations guiding their individual conscience. For it is not the will of God that we should be guided in matters which belong to the teaching of the Church by anything but that Divine teaching. And so, if there were to be nothing but this interior unction at the last period of the world to secure the saints against deception, if they were taught to look to that exclusively, they would not be armed against the dangers of that time as God means them to be armed. This is a certain truth.
But it may be not the less true, that we need the two-fold guidance of which our Lord here speaks, and that even “the lightning” declaring to us the presence of our Lord in His Church might not be enough, because it might indeed show us where He is, but it might not give us the force and the courage to seek Him, in the face of all the manifold difficulties which will then beset His elect.
In those days men will [lack] love as well as knowledge; they will [lack] that desire and longing for our Lord which He describes under this image of the hunger of the eagles hastening to their prey, as well as the light which shows them where He ought to be sought.
How common is it even in the days in which we live, to find men who tell us that if anything in the way of religion is true, it is the Catholic Church, but who have not the strength to make themselves her children against the cravings of their passions, or the influences of worldly interest! As far as we can guess, the number of such men is on the increase, as it cannot but be on the increase, when the hollowness of all the rival claims of the sects and establishments, founded on national feeling or on policy, becomes more and more evident to thinking men; and when the pretended national Churches are gradually deprived of the support of the State and of their ancient endowments, which have ever been their strongest sources of influence.
What is this but to say that more and more we have need of the overmastering hunger of the eagles, as well as of the shining of the lightning from east to west?
The external evidences of the Catholic Church do not address themselves with any cogency to men who do not feel the need of any religion, and it is this state of mind and heart that will characterize the last period of the life of the human race. It is quite conceivable that then the Catholic Church may represent to the world the one solitary remaining religion, that she may be the only considerable body which even calls itself by the name of Jesus Christ, and that her difficulties in that time will not be in her struggle with a swarm of sects, but how to get men [even] to acknowledge that they have souls to save, a conscience to obey, and a God to Whom they are accountable.
What then, my brethren, can we wish and pray for more ardently, for ourselves and for others, than that God will make us all eagles in the sense in which that image is here used by our Blessed Lord – that our hearts may be consumed with hunger and thirst after justice; that the love of our Lord may so drive us on and on; that we may be unable to rest away from Him, as if we should indeed die if we found Him not?
Conclusion – our duties to our children and the next generation
Oh! Let us pray that the fruit of that blessed frequentation of the sacraments, and other means of grace, which is our present privilege – but which in the days of the last persecution may be denied us, as it was denied to our forefathers in the time of their persecution – may be a strength and ripeness and robustness of spirit, which may make us able to take long and lofty flights in the service of our Lord; that that interior vigour may be formed in us, which makes little account of the things of this world and even of exterior helps, when such cannot be had!
Keen of sight and strong of pinion, and dauntless in courage, and ever ready to die in defence of what is dear to them, dwellers on the lonely peaks with the stars and clouds, and far from the noisy world — such is the picture which we form from what we know concerning the characteristics of the eagles; and our Lord here adds the further trait, that nothing prevents them from finding out their prey or keeps them from it when it is found.
Such we may surely say must be the saints of the latter days; and if they must be such, such must be those from whom they come. The poet tells us that the fierce eagles do not give birth to the timid and cowering dove, and neither, we may say, will the timid and soft-hearted dove give birth to the warrior eagle.
And so again and again we come round to the same old truth — that the comforts and effeminacies and frivolities and childishnesses of modern life can never be looked to for the training of men who are to fight the last brave fight for God and for our Lord; and that, if there are to be eagles of spirit, then their breeding and their nurturing must begin now.
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. John iv. 4
 1 St John ii. 26, 27
 Hebrews xi. 27.