John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The readings for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (July 8) focus on prophets. The text from Ezekiel tells us that, whether people listen or not has nothing to do with the truth of the prophet’s message. The Gospel contains the famous line about “a prophet [being] not without honor, except in his native place.”
We need to make clear up front two things about prophets: (1) what the prophetic mission is and (2) why you should be a prophet.
First, what the prophetic mission is. The prophets make up a substantial part of the Old Testament and, in Jewish theology, they rank right after the Law (torah) in terms of significance.
The prophets were not fortune tellers. Granted, sometimes their message extended to what would happen in the future, but the primary focus of the Old Testament prophets’ attention was now, not the future. They took the Law, the basis of the covenant between God and His People, and demanded that Israel live up to it today, here and now. The prophet is concerned that Israel has fallen off the wagon and needs to get right with God now.
The prophets did agree that, because God is just and because He has acted (Exodus) and continues to act in history, the events of history could be understood as ways God called Israel and Judah to get back on track. In the Old Testament, the most obvious example was the progressive extermination of the Jewish people’s freedom, first of Israel’s by Assyria, then of Judah’s by Babylon. But the prophets were not so much interested in what might happen if the Chosen People persist in evil, but rather of averting what could happen by conversion today: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7).
The other important thing to say about the prophet was that his message was not his. The prophet understood that the message he was conveying was God’s. “Thus says the Lord” is the usual refrain that precedes a prophet’s statement. Indeed, when we look at a reluctant prophet like Jeremiah, it’s very clear he’s not particularly happy bringing the message he had to Israel. But God did not ask the prophet whether he liked the message: he asked the prophet to deliver it intact. The reading from Ezekiel is clear: he is sent to the Jews and, whether they accept the message or not, “they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”
The next thing we should say about prophets is: Each of us is called to be one.
By virtue of Baptism, we have received a share in the threefold mission of Christ (triplex munere Christi): we are called to be priests, prophets and kings.
How do we exercise our prophetic vocation? St. John Paul II, who stressed the Christian’s share in the threefold office of Christ and the teaching of Vatican II (on being a prophet, see Lumen gentium, # 12) that underscored it, puts it simply: a Christian exercises his prophetic vocation when he lives and speaks the truth. Truth, after all, is God, comes from God, and is the Word of God – and a prophet’s job is to speak God’s word.
Being a Christian means living up to one’s Baptism and especially one’s Confirmation. It doesn’t mean being a “holy roller” or putting on extravagant demonstrations. It does mean: hewing to the truth, no matter what.
One area where the truth is very much under assault today—even by some who claim to be within the Church—is in the area of marriage and family life. In two weeks, the Church will mark the 50th anniversary of Bl. Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae.
Humanae vitae has been called in many quarters “prophetic,” and that’s true. Many of the things that Paul VI predicted would follow the widespread acceptance of contraception, such as the devaluation of women (see #17), the intrusion of the state into promotion of contraception (also #17) and, most especially, to the idea that, through technology, man can do anything he is capable of in the realm of life ethics (#18). Humanae vitae stood athwart the effort to separate sex from babies; in the ensuing 50 years, we now also have babies separated from sex, not just as the way they come into the world but also as a constitutive element of the families in which they grow up.
There will undoubtedly be voices in the next few weeks that announce the Humanae vitae was a failure and that “Catholics” have rejected it as pervasively as the larger world. Perhaps, although I would quibble with the definition of Catholic that puts itself at odds with the Teaching Church on so fundamental a moral question as relevant to so many people on a daily basis as: what does Catholic marriage and sexual life entail? My point is different. Perhaps many “Catholics” do not accept the encyclical. Ezekiel had an answer for that: “whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”
Undoubtedly, in the next few weeks, somebody around you will mention “the Church sticking its nose into sex” and “how silly was Pope Paul VI.” Will you be enough of a prophet – will you live up to your Confirmation – and maybe gently suggest there’s something correct to the encyclical? Priests – will you say anything about the encyclical to help Catholics understand it, or will you maintain the vow of omertà when it comes to talking about the front line issue where human dignity and the truth of love is at stake?
Few of the prophets had an easy time in their vocation. The ultimate prophet, John the Baptist, even lost his head when the leader of his day lost his head over sex, a woman and a dancing girl. Plus ça change. … So, we should hardly be surprised that the prophetic Paul VI – and those who follow Humanae vitae – encounter resistance from a rebellious house. The prophet is told to proclaim the truth, but receives no guarantee he will prevail. The one thing of which he can be sure, however, is that what he says will prevail, because the word is not his but His.