Doomsday or distraction?

By Clare Myers and Robert Duncan

One may not know the day and hour of the second coming of Christ, but according to Stephen Walford, the signs of its approach are obvious.

In his recently published book, “Heralds of the Second Coming: Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, and the Popes of the Marian Era from Blessed Pius IX to Benedict XVI,” the English writer argues that there is substantial evidence that we are entering an “apocalyptic” age.

“The popes have spoken in a prophetic way about the nearness of the second coming,” he said. “The coming of the Lord is approaching and we have to prepare ourselves.”

The book includes a foreword by Cardinal Ivan Dias, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and has been given both a “nihil obstat” and an imprimatur by the bishop of Portsmouth, England. Although neither constitutes an official endorsement by the Catholic Church, the “nihil obstat” declares that a work contains no errors in matters of faith and morals, and the imprimatur grants the author official permission to publish it.

Walford says it is important that readers know “that what they are reading conforms exactly to the teachings of the church on this really important subject.”

The piano teacher-turned-author classifies the past century and a half as the “Marian Era,” an age in which devotion to the Virgin Mary has gradually increased since Pope Pius IX formally defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

“We can see this Marian Era as heaven’s attempt to warn the church,” he said.

In addition to Mary, Walford identifies other “heralds” who bring the world’s attention to what is happening in history today. In particular he analyzes the words of recent popes and the experiences of certain mystics, people who have especially intimate encounters with God. One such mystical event Walford discusses is the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three young children in Fatima, Portugal. Our Lady of Fatima, as she is now called, is closely associated with the signs of the second coming. Another mystic is St. Faustina, a 20th century Polish nun whose visions of Jesus led to the establishment of the Divine Mercy devotion. Walford calls the Divine Mercy devotion, like that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, “of paramount importance for all Catholics as preparation in these times.”

Walford also claims that two omens of the second coming — the spreading of the Gospel to the entire world and a “massive falling away of the faith” — are at hand.

“On one hand [the faith is] spreading,” he says, giving the example of missionary expansion throughout Africa, “and on the other hand it’s being rejected.”

The “silent apostasy” or religious indifference, of the West, coincides with a widespread persecution of Christians, he said. Walford cites the large number of modern Christian martyrs, estimated by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research at 1 million over the past decade, as evidence of this, although he believes that this is not the ultimate trial the church will have to undergo.

“We haven’t as yet seen this final persecution,” he says.

Walford bases much of his argument on what he calls the “apocalyptic” words of recent popes.

For instance, he highlights Blessed John Paul II’s 2000 exhortation to youth to act as “morning watchmen at the dawn of the new millenium.” He also quotes Paul VI’s words from a 1976 general audience: “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.” Although the book does not include an analysis of the current pope’s words, Walford asserts that he is consistent with those who came before.

“Pope Francis is absolutely … in continuity with his predecessors,” he says, noting that his papacy is consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima.

Although he sees the need for the church to rouse itself in light of these reflections on modern events and the second coming, he emphasizes that no one can know when exactly the world will end.

“I’m suggesting that humanity has reached some critical point,” he says. “How long that carries on for is a mystery.”

Ultimately, Walford insists his message is positive. He says he is not trying to frighten people, but rather to inspire them to live better lives in anticipation of the Christ’s triumphant return.

“We have to live in these times with real hope,” he says. “We have to live in these times with real joy.”

“Heralds of the Second Coming” has received mixed reviews. Dr. Jeff Mirus of CatholicCulture.org noted that the author demonstrates a “scholar’s grasp of the writings and speeches of the popes,” but dismissed the conclusions he draws from them.

“Insofar as Walford sends us on the wild goose chase of mining papal documents for confirmation that the end times are upon us, then the book will be but one more apocalyptic distraction,” he wrote.

Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald agreed with the author’s general description of the modern era, and also remarked on the author’s “scholarly” approach to papal teachings. But she remained unconvinced that the end times are imminent.

“As Christians we believe in the second coming of Christ at the end of the world,” she wrote. “But … we do not know the day nor the hour when this will take place. In this respect we are in exactly the same position as the early followers of Jesus 2,000 years ago.”

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