Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
“We have been the beneficiaries of two prophetic streams in recent times, one from heaven in the form of private revelation, and another from the teaching authority of the Vicar of Christ on earth. Together, they have warned us of the approaching storm, but more importantly of the victory, that final triumph of God himself which will see earth become heaven. The entire history of salvation is culminating in our days.”
So says Stephen Walford in Heralds of the Second Coming, his recent book subtitled Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, and the Popes of the Maria Era from Blessed Pius IX to Benedict XVI. Put both together, and the complete title tells the story of what this magnificent work is about. It’s as timely as a combination of today’s headlines and the Book of Revelation.
Walford takes us on a tour of the Marian era popes who “with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carefully discerned the signs of the times and courageously proclaimed the reality that for the Church, its final, great struggle against the forces of evil was at hand.”
He shows “how the recent popes, especially John Paul II, have prepared the Church and the world to live the conclusion of the end times — the purification and great tribulation — through their magisterial teachings.”
It’s good to realize that the book has a nihil obstat plus a foreword by Cardinal Ivan Dias, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, who says the popes of the Marian era have given a steady “prophetic stream running alongside that of private revelations from visionaries and mystics.”
In any mention of private revelation, it’s always from a Church-approved one, mainly Fatima and St. Faustina. Walford mainly sticks with the writings, talks, and audiences of the Holy Fathers to build the theme into a solid fortress where we can find hope and shelter in the storm. Remember, it’s the popes speaking, writing and actions — not the author’s speculation — that is the material and architecture building the stronghold we need to enter.
The Safe and Secure Way
Walford takes us from the ground up in chronological order, beginning with Blessed Pius IX. But once we finish we can see how parts here and there go together. For example, John Paul II stated that the Marian era began with Pius IX's proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception back in 1854. From there, popes became even more progressively Marian because as Benedict XVI put it, “Marian devotion is the sure guarantee of her maternal protection and safeguard in the hour of temptation.”
In fact, we learn that already in his 1849 encyclical Ubi Primum, Pius IX told us, “For, God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation. For this is His will, that we obtain everything through Mary.”
That’s a good reason why, as Walford reminds us, the Holy Fathers saw devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the way to alleviate the dangers spreading in the word through modernism rationalism, liberalism — the “ism” ideas.
We’re shown how Leo XIII was very Marian writing 13 encyclicals on the Rosary; St. Pius X wrote of the “disastrous state of human society today” — the disease of apostasy from God; Pius XI promoted the Rosary and reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Pius XII also gave dire warnings such as in his 1957 Easter Message: “There are numerous signs that Thy return is not far off.” He proclaimed the next Marian dogma of the Assumption; proclaimed Mary as Queen of the World with a liturgical feast honoring her honor; and spoke often about Fatima.
This Holy Father encouraged “today more than ever, the whole of humanity ought to run to…the Most Pure Heart of the Virgin…Humanity ought to take refuge in this fortress…”
St. John XXIII also had a strong Marian devotion. More optimistic than his predecessors, he pointed to joy and hope as central pillars for spiritual life. Though an optimist, he saw the crises of the times and in writings on occasion used apocalyptic wording or references, and spoke of the dangers.
In the 1970s as Marian devotion was being downplayed — the work of Satan knowing his time is short — Blessed Paul VI also brought out strong Marian themes. Walford highlights one exceptionally long general audience quote by Paul VI that begins: “What is one of the Church’s greatest needs at the present time? “[T]o be defended against the evil we call the Devil…Don’t we see how much evil there is in the world — especially moral evil, which goes against man and against God at one and the same time.”
Paul VI goes to talk about confronting the devil’s power.
He gives clear warning about the end times. “There is, at this time, a great turmoil in the world and in the Church, and what is in question is the faith…‘When the Son of Man returns, will he still find faith on the earth?’…Sometimes I re-read the Gospel on the end of times and I notice that, at this moment, there are emerging some signs of this end. Are we close to the end? This is something we shall never know.”
Same passage: “What strikes me when I consider the Catholic world, is that, in the heart of Catholicism, it sometimes appears that a pattern of thought prevails which is not Catholic in character, and it can come about that this non-Catholic pattern of thought, at the heart of Catholicism, could become the more powerful one at some time in the future. But it will never represent the thought of the Church. It is necessary that a little flock should remain, however little it be.”
Pope of Fatima
Of course, we know it’s St. John Paul II. In the entire long chapter Walford devotes to the saintly Holy Father, he masterfully sheds light on this title by looking at John Paul II’s thoughts and quotes that fit right into the pope’s grasp of the apocalyptic times he believed we are living in and often spoke about.
Even before this chapter, Walford sheds light on how John Paul II viewed his role in leading “the Church towards the second coming of Jesus was critical and urgent.” The pope spoke of the silent apostasy the Church was undergoing, how it could only live the new Advent properly if it is attentive to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and how he saw “Mary’s role is vital” writing that “it is God’s will that the future victories of the Church will come through Mary.”
Then came John Paul II’s focus on Fatima. He made three pilgrimages to Fatima, each time giving many insights into its significance in these end times.
Examining the words of John Paul II, Walford brings out how, “The pope stresses that the message of Fatima is basically the same as the gospel message: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 3:2). The Lady of the Message seems to have read with special insights the ‘signs of the times,’ the signs of our time…And so while the message of Our Lady of Fatima is a motherly one, it is also strong and decisive. It sounds like John the Baptist speaking on the banks of the Jordan. It invites to repentance. It gives a warning. It calls to prayer. It recommends the Rosary.’”
Walford says of one example from a 1991 homily at Fatima, “The Holy Father reflected that the message of Fatima emphasizes the maternal mediation of Mary as essential to the Church of our times, as it struggle with the curse of unbelief and apostasy.”
Again, “Fatima tells us that the consecration the Immaculate Heart of Mary is the greatest weapon in defending the Church and the world against this onslaught of evil.”
Pope of Divine Mercy
Walford naturally follows with the next chapters. The first in line focuses on John Paul II’s companion major focus — Divine Mercy. Before his focus on Fatima beginning in 1981, the pope was already meditating on St. Faustina’s mystical experiences. He was undoubtedly part of heaven’s plan as Jesus told Faustina: “From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the World for my final coming” (Diary 1732).
There’s also a major look at John Paul II’s concentration on the youth, how he wanted them to know of the seriousness of the world’s situation. Walford points to instances in the Holy Father’s letters and addresses to youth showing he wasn’t afraid to warn them of the apocalyptic dangers threatening the world. He repeatedly told youth they were to be sentinels, watchmen and heralds of the new heaven and new earth.
Importantly, Walford brings out a new perspective on the meaning of the pope describing how, as John Paul II said, “God is preparing a great springtime for Christianity, as we can already see its first signs.”
The author makes the point that there’s a tendency to see this as a “resurgence of Christianity in the new century and yes, this is a valid interpretation, but looking at the facts, we must ask ourselves if it is likely. The world is becoming more evil day by day…the pope has spoken of a silent ‘apostasy’ while confirming we are in the final battle…Can it be doubted that Pontiff proclaims the new springtime as that time when the Lord will return with all his saints?”
Walford makes the case that in addresses, talks, speeches and writings, John Paul II keeps prophesying the imminent coming of the kingdom. One such example is in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (40). “The grave challenges confronting the world at the start of this new Millennium lead us to think that only an intervention from on high, capable of guiding the hearts of those living in situations of conflict and those governing the destinies of nations, can give reason to hope for a brighter future.”
Course Straight to Second Coming
Benedict XVI steered this same course. (Pope Francis is not included because this book came out just before he became pope.)
There’s a splendidly revealing section on Benedict’s words and writings on Fatima and its meanings, plus others on his apocalyptic references. Gathered together here, they are enormously revealing.
At Fatima in 2010, Benedict said in his homily, “We would be mistaken to think that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete.” Six weeks later he spoke about the “last days” from 2 Timothy 3.
Walford brings up St Hildegard of Bingen, named a Doctor of the Church by Benedict, and her vision of the last days (included in an appendix) in which we can better understand Benedict’s 2005 Via Crucis meditations. Walford makes a strong case that Benedict joined Fatima with Hildegard’s vision to give us a message: “‘If you do not repent you shall all perish’ (Luke 13:3).”
Walford says that one of the main characteristics about his papacy “has been Benedict’s expositions on the Book of Revelation” and how many times in speeches, homilies, general audiences “he has explained various passages…” The author asks that through all these citings of Benedict can’t we see his sense of urgency?
At the same time, Benedict spoke of the importance of hope in such papal writings as Spe Salvi.
Indeed, shining a spotlight on the last line of popes over the last 160-plus years which doesn’t blink or diminish at all, Walford shows us the necessity of seeing them as truly Heralds of the Second Coming.
It’s essential reading for anyone who wants insight into the end-times theology from the recent Holy Fathers and their connection to Church-approved apparitions.