Pastoral Theology: What it means to ‘read the signs’
One basic belief that lies behind the social teaching of Catholics is that the Almighty has shaped human history. This biblical era perception transcends time, prevailing even today. Indeed, it holds true in areas and among civilizations wherein God’s word is accepted as well as among civilizations that were completely unaware of Christ or the gospel. God is in action, redeeming and healing humanity and inviting it to contribute to this work. Perceiving God’s historical actions and understanding His invitation, is now, typically called: “reading the signs of the times.” In the modern social thought of Catholics, this term is based on the following statement of Christ’s to Sadducees and Pharisees: “You know how to read the face of the sky, but you cannot read the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:4). Pope Saint John XXIII first utilized this phrase in modern social teaching of the Catholic group of Christians to denote the key features of the era, emerging from human society’s collective consciousness as social movements and shared understandings (Kroeger, 2014). The former Pope believed the workers’ rights and women’s rights movements, as well as the abolition of colonialism were key “signs of the times.” Consequently, these “signs” point towards, and personify, the Holy Spirit’s movement in the history of humanity, working to lead to mankind’s redemption as well as the fuller recognition of God’s Reign. Interpretation of these signs necessitates prayerful acumen among Christians and during dialogue with every person of good ambition. The conditions for this judgment involve the consistency of the modern “signs” with Christ’s teachings, common good, and the Christian perception of mankind’s nature (Beth, 2004).
It is the Church’s duty to look into and interpret the signs of different eras, since such an analysis is essential to the accomplishment of its goal to propagate Jesus’s work. There are three points to be borne in mind when it comes to studying and interpreting the “signs.” Firstly, the objective of this scrutiny and interpretation must be finding responses to questions pertaining to life’s meaning in this world and the next, in addition to how the two are related; these responses are highly vital to humans. Secondly, for effectively responding to the above questions, men and women of the cloth need to understand the world’s character, desires, and hopes. Lastly, this interpretation can never be complete; however, it has to be carried out continuously for suiting different generations. Therefore, the church will be engaged in a constant hermeneutical undertaking; the text being the world. Pope Paul VI stated that reading the “signs of the times” meant theologically interpreting modern history; it is not simply a retrospective interpretation of previous times. It must be perceived as an effort to discover indications and signs of a link to God’s kingdom, in the present age.
In comprehending the “signs,” a number of observations are exposed. Firstly, every individual has a duty and a right to realize the link between the world’s events and moral good known to him/her via conscience. Therefore, the understanding of these signs is not perceived as a Christian monopoly. Secondly, however, Christians contribute uniquely to this enlightenment. They are aware that reading of the signs involves contemplating whether ideas, discoveries, achievements, and events of the era diminish or enrich true humanity. In order to hold oneself in this quest, one should read the signs by identifying resemblances and correspondences between real humanity and modern world experiences. Should this appear to be an overly static view of humanity, it will become evident that the nature of man is dynamic. Therefore, the question Christians ought to pose when occupied in the interpretation of signs is whether modern events complement messianic and biblical history right from the time of Resurrection to that of the Second Coming.
A second observation is that: clearly, every Christian will read the signs quite differently, as one individual will have access to information that is denied to another, as well as because of differences in individual consciences. Believers should resist the urge to identify their interpretation of the era they live in, with the Almighty’s judgment. Even permitting enhanced clarity on the charisma of prophecy, one needs to remember that God’s prophetic word transmits through God’s people, rather than to any specific person. Hence, the Church, being that ‘people’, becomes the center of Christianity’s interpretation of signs. Therefore, what protects a genuine Christian reading of modern history from neo-clerical and pseudo-prophetic temptations that desire to directly derive a political structure from Scripture at the impulse of individual explanation is that Christianity studies “signs of the times” through the Holy Spirit’s aid, in discourse with fellow Christians and every person holding good will, and during communion with bishops.
The moral goodness reflected by every individual’s conscience is the standard used to compare the modern world with God’s kingdom. Though whole of mankind is capable of applying the above standard to current events, Christianity, connected through hierarchical spiritual relationships and guided by the third person in the Trinity, makes a distinctive contribution to interpretation of these signs. This interpretation is a joint endeavor among all individuals holding good will, and Christians need to be particularly careful and avoid all “triumphalism” (Himes, 2013).
The biblical injunction to interpret signs is seen in Johannine as well as synoptic traditions (e.g., when Christ advises listeners to pay attention to messianic indications, or his miracles heralding the Kingdom’s advent). These indications are as evident as the absolutely evident signs of changes in season such as omens of bad weather or crop fields ready for harvest. The generation that requests more than is already bestowed on it, is considered unfaithful and evil and may only be given Jonah’s sign. The subsequent depiction of the contemporary world underlines a period of swift, immense change. Progress is accompanied by paralysis and insecurity; ambiguities of poverty and wealth, bondage and freedom; a dynamic idea of reality that stems from scientific and technological advancements, influenced socially by migration, industrialization, and urbanization, and religiously, with questions of disbelief and belief becoming widespread, in the midst of increasing demands for economic and political emancipation and justice. The understanding of these human ambiguities implies that mankind is raising questions before itself. This is where one can uncover the source of issues, as the imbalances currently influencing our world, in reality are, linked to a profounder imbalance grounded in man’s heart, wherein different facets oppose one another (Kirwan, 2010).
Religious leaders are not responsible for providing a comprehensive analysis of modern reality; however, every community must be watchful of the “signs.” This, certainly, constitutes a serious responsibility and unless one effectively addresses it, it has the potential to set off dehumanization processes that would be very difficult, if at all, to reverse. Individuals need to differentiate clearly between what may be one of the fruits of God’s kingdom, and what is contrary to His plan. This entails recognition and discernment of spirits, as well as choosing good movements and avoiding those stemming from the evil spirit. From the pastoral point-of-view, the study must concentrate on specific factors capable of enfeebling or limiting urges of Church missionary renewal — either because of the threat to the dignity and life of the Almighty’s people, or due to the fact that they impact persons involved directly in the institutions of the Church and those engaged in evangelization (Loris, 2004).
The present era is at a historical turning-point, as is seen from the advancements achieved in various areas. The steps taken towards improving mankind’s welfare in the areas like healthcare, communications, and education ought to be praised. Concurrently, one must remember that much of mankind is barely making it from one day to the next, and the consequences are dire. Several diseases are seen to be spreading. Humanity’s heart is gripped by desperation and fear, even in supposedly prosperous nations. The joys of life often fade, and violence, inequality, and a lack of regard for fellow human beings are rife. Such an epochal change is set off by the vast quantitative, qualitative, cumulative, and swift developments in science and technology, as well as by their instantaneous employment in different domains of life and nature. The world is now in an era of information and knowledge, resulting in novel, and frequently unknown, types of power.
A “sign of the times” that particularly needs to be studied in the current world may be seen in the relationship between man and money, as mankind calmly accepts its control over society and oneself. The present financial crisis may make one forget that its origins lie in a great crisis of humanity: a denial of our primacy! Man has created new idols. Citing the Bible’s narrative in the Exodus, the golden calf’s worship has been renewed in the novel, to counter coldblooded guise of worship of money, together with the despotism of an uncongenial economy that lacks a true human purpose. Further, in “Timothy,” it has been stated that a love for money represents the root cause of all forms of evils. Via this craving, some individuals have strayed far from Christianity, piercing themselves with numerous pangs. This love for money causes one to stray from religion as money, rather than Jesus, becomes the focus of one’s affectations. The global economic and financial crisis exposes imbalances and, especially, a lack of genuine concern for fellow humans; mankind gets reduced to mere consumption needs (Armstrong, 2009). The phenomenon of social imbalance results from ideologies that defend financial speculation and total marketplace autonomy. Thus, they reject state rights of exercising any measure of control (states are responsible for being vigilant for the good of the public). This gives rise to a new type of oppression that persistently and unilaterally enforces its own rules and laws. Interest accumulation and debt also render it hard for states to recognize their respective economic potential and prevent societies from making the most of their true purchasing power. This, supplemented by selfish evasion of taxes and rampant corruption, has assumed worldwide proportions. The desire for possessions and power is limitless. This system usually devours all that obstructs profit maximization; such things are defenseless when faced with a deified market’s interests (Francis, 2013).
A second “sign of modern times” is: the current financial system that does not serve, but rather, rules. Underlying this attitude is a dismissal of ethical values and God. People have now come to scorn ethics and consider it counterproductive, since it makes power and money relative. People now consider ethics a threat, as it denounces the exploitation and disparagement of fellow human beings, which in turn negates the power to acquire control. In fact, ethics will take one to a Lord who demands a committed reaction outside marketplace categories. “Absolutization” of the latter will make one perceive God as unmanageable, uncontrollable, and dangerous, as He calls humanity to their total realization as well as freedom from every kind of bondage.
Through ethics, it would be possible to achieve balance, together with a more humanitarian social order. Consequently, political leaders and financial experts are motivated to contemplate the sayings of a sage of antiquity, who stated that not sharing one’s fortune with poor people was akin to taking their livelihood away and stealing from them, since we hold their goods, and not ours. President Obama further expounds on this argument by asserting that irrespective of what modern society chooses to believe, everybody needs to remember the fact that no religion’s central theory is hate; no God will condone the taking of innocent lives (Majewski, 2009). Financial reforms receptive to the aforementioned ethical considerations will need a forceful change of tactic on political leaders’ part. This challenge must be faced by keeping one’s eyes on the future and remaining determined, whilst simultaneously taking care not to ignore individual case specifics. Money ought to serve, rather than rule. In his essay, Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis depicts a love for all and reminds humanity that the affluent members of society should promote, aid, and respect the underprivileged ones. He further urges one and all towards generous solidarity as well as towards the reversion of finance and economics to the former ethical approach that favored humanity (Francis, 2013).
Yet another indication of present times is cultural challenges. People’s attempt to face the different emergent societal challenges represents a type of evangelism. Occasionally, these can assume the ugly shape of new persecutions against Christianity or out-and-out criticism of religious freedom. In some nations, these have grown to alarming degrees of consistently practiced violence and hate. In several places, the issue is more of extensive relativism and indifference, associated with disillusionment and an ideological crisis that has emerged as a response to all things that may seem to be totalitarian. This harms both the Church and the overall societal fabric. One must realize how hard it is for people to formulate a common strategy transcending personal ambitions and gain, in a society wherein all individuals desire to maintain their own biased truths. In studying the “signs of the times,” it is necessary for clergymen to take care of the hopes of people across the world and respond to its real cultural and social transformation. Through this, man will be able to view the alternatives society faces in plain terms: a universe of abundance wherein so many individuals suffer from hunger, and those desiring freedom are faced with novel forms of psychological and social depravity and thereby, captivity (O’meara & Philibert, 2013).
The fourth major “sign” is exclusion economy. similar to the commandment against killing that establishes a clear boundary for safeguarding human life’s value, modern man must prohibit the widespread economic trend of inequality and exclusion that undoubtedly kills, though in a slightly different sense. Inequality today is the rich throwing copious amounts of leftovers away while the poor starve. All things come under competitive laws today, with the “survival of the fittest” manifesting itself more starkly than ever — the powerful individual feeds on those who are powerless. Consequently, innumerable individuals find themselves marginalized and excluded. It no longer remains merely about domination and mistreatment, but something entirely new. Exclusion eventually deals with what being part of society means; excluded persons are not simply disenfranchised or are on society’s undersides or fringes — they are simply not considered part of society any longer (Francis, 2013). In order to maintain a lifestyle that excludes other people, or to maintain enthusiasm for such selfish ideals, there has emerged a worldwide attitude of indifference. Almost unconsciously, man ends up becoming incapable of compassion at the sight of poor people suffering. We cannot even shed a tear when we see others in misery, or even feel the need to aid them, as if all of this is not our responsibility, but that of somebody else. Our pursuit of prosperity has deadened us; humanity is now ecstatic if some new product comes on the shelves, but the lives that are stunted due to lack of opportunities do not move us; we view them as nothing but a spectacle (Cassidy, 2013). Just like Paul, in Colossians, has interpreted his personal existence using the suffering he experienced, communities ought to model him and think about the concept of today’s human suffering (O’Collins, 2001).
Regarding the “signs of the times” concept, one can analyze urban cultures and contemporary life. The holy land (New Jerusalem), as per “Revelation,” is a goal all of mankind is progressing toward. An assumption of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, along with its sensitivity towards the strange, can add novel perspectives to a complex discussion on the subject of migration. The fact that the revelation to Jesus states that the richness of history and humanity can be realized within a city is curious (Rettenbacher and Gruber, 2015). It implies that one must consider our cities wherein life’s religious dimensions are conveyed through different lifestyles, everyday rhythms that are linked to people and places. In their routine lives, people often have to struggle to just about get by, and this encompasses a deep understanding of human life, typically, including a strongly religious dimension. We need to explore this more carefully for entering into a conversation such as that between the thirsty Samaritan female and our Lord at a well (Cox, 2006). Novel cultures are emerging constantly in the vast novel expanses wherein Christians no longer remain the customary generators or interpreters of meaning. Rather, Christianity is taking new languages, messages, paradigms and symbols from latest cultures that propose novel views to life, usually contradicting Jesus’s Gospel. An entirely new culture appears to have emerged and is constantly growing in cities. Such changes transpiring in these vast spaces as well as the culture they form constitute new evangelization’s privileged locus. The struggle to scrape a living furthers environmental degradation in its distinctive way. It also furthers disaster for the urban poor relatively frequently (Lynch, 1991).
To conclude, Catholicism is being challenged today by an explosion of novel religious movements, of which some drift towards fundamentalism, while the rest apparently propose spirituality without the Almighty. This represents a human response to an individualistic, materialistic, and consumerist society. At the same time, it also acts as the means to take advantage of the poor’s weaknesses, as well as those of individuals living on society’s fringes — individuals who scrape a living amid immense suffering and seek immediate resolutions to their issues. Such religious movements in largely individualistic cultures fill the void secularist rationalism has left, with a certain amount of shrewdness. We have to realize that, if some baptized groups do not experience belongingness, it will be because of particular structures, together with the sometimes unfriendly climate of some Christian communities and parishes, or because of the bureaucratic approach to tackling issues whether complex or simple, in people’s lives. In many circumstances, administrative approaches will succeed in place of pastoral approaches, just as the concentrating on sacrament administration besides other kinds of evangelization does. Clearly, the dark, dangerous world where a struggle for truth, friendship, peace, and purity of heart, mind and action is seen will be just as taxing in future as it has in bygone days. The radiance of revelation, which is the incarnate wisdom of God doesn’t evict the enduring darkness it shines in (Lash, 2002).
Armstrong, A., 2009. Everyday Theology: Money is the root of all evil – Blogging Theologically. [online] Blogging Theologically. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
Beth, L., 2004. Catholic Social Teaching – Theological Context: Reading the Signs of the Times – FAMVIN News. [online] FAMVIN News. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
Cassidy, J., 2013. Pope Francis’s Challenge to Global Capitalism. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
Cox, H., 2006. Keeping faith with the secular city. [online] Keeping faith with the secular city. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
Francis, P., 2013. Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (24 November 2013) — Francis. [online] Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (24 November 2013) — Francis. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
Himes, M.J., 2013. Reading the Signs of the Times: Theological Reflections. Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 57.
Kirwan, M. 2010. Reading the Signs of the Times. In: Sweeney, J., Simmonds, G., and Lonsdale, D. eds. Keeping faith in practice: aspects of Catholic pastoral theology. London, UK: SCM Press, pp. 49-63.
Kroeger, J., 2014. Always Alert to God’s Action: Evangelii Gaudium and the. [online] World Mission Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
Lash, N. 2002. Authors, Authority and Authorization. In Egan, P. ed. Authority in the Roman Catholic Church: Theory and Practice. New Blackfriars, 85(996), pp.59-69.
Loris Ph D, M., 2004. Reading the Sign of the Times: The Humanities, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, and the Catholic Church.
Lynch, M.R., 1991. Renewing the Earth. [online] Renewing the Earth. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
Majewski, M.Z., 2009. Signs of the Times. [online] America Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2016].
O’Collins, G. (2001). Fundamental theology. Eugene, OR, Wipf and Stock Pub.
O’meara, T. F., & Philibert, P. J. (2013). Scanning the signs of the times: French Dominicans in the twentieth century. Hindmarsh, SA, ATF Theology.
Rettenbacher, S., & Gruber, J. (2015). Migration as a sign of the times. http://public.eblib.com/choice/PublicFullRecord.aspx
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