||Gimme that end-time (Catholic)
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Judging by news reports and prestigious lecture invitations, the most important voices in American Catholicism today are thinkers such as John Neuhaus and Joan Chittister, Michael Novak and Richard McBrien, and high-profile bishops such as Rembert Weakland and Charles Chaput. Together, conventional wisdom goes, they cover most points on the churchs ideological compass.
To some Catholics, however, all of the above are like peas in the same irrelevant pod. For neither Neuhaus nor McBrien has anything to say about the U.N. troops assembling in our national parks or about the concentration camps operating on closed military bases; and neither Chittister nor Chaput talks about the impending Great Chastisement or about the impostor pope who will precede it. None has ever acknowledged that rosaries are turning to gold or adverted to Eucharistic miracles in which consecrated hosts bleed and grow veins.
In short, these so-called leading lights have missed what a number of Catholics see as the central story of our time: that the end is near.
Seer and visionary John Leary is, by his constituencys way of thinking, worth a legion of head-in-the-sand hierarchs and academics. Leary is a rising star in the Catholic apocalyptic subculture, where visionary portions of the Bible, Marian prophecies and right-wing conspiracy theories blend into a comprehensive world-view. He travels almost every weekend to two or three different locations -- sometimes church basements, more often community centers or hotels -- drawing crowds of between 300 and 500 Catholics, spreading his message of the Great Tribulation to come.
And Leary is just the tip of the iceberg. While Catholics have more often been the villains than the protagonists of American apocalyptic movements -- with Rome pictured as the whore of Babylon -- a growing number of Catholics find themselves drawn to the sense that these might be the final days. Theres no reliable estimate of how many Catholics would fit that description, according to William Dinges, professor of religious studies at The Catholic University of America, but he said they represent a substantial and growing presence within the church, a presence that is expected to expand as the year 2000 gets closer.
Opinion polls consistently show that around 40 percent of Americans believe in a final battle between good and evil, an Armageddon, said Paul Boyer, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Boyers book When Time Shall Be No More is considered a classic study of apocalyptic thought. When you have that large a pool of people attracted to this belief system, it commands attention.
Despite the natural temptation to dismiss Catholic apocalypticism as a lunatic fringe, Dinges argues that doing so is a mistake. Efforts to find common ground in todays factionalized church, he says, must take folks such as Leary into account.
Born in 1942, Leary grew up, got a job, got married and raised a family, all in Rochester, N.Y. He worked most of those years at Eastman Kodak as a chemist. John and his wife, Carol, have two daughters and six grandchildren.
Leary is a cradle Catholic, but that description doesnt do justice to the depth of his religious devotion. Hes been a daily communicant since the age of 17. He prays the rosary -- all 15 decades -- every day and spends an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He also goes to confession frequently.
Leary developed a lively belief in the supernatural early on. He and Carol took tales of Marian apparitions seriously, devoting a 1987 European vacation to hitting the top sites -- Fatima, Portugal; Lourdes, France; Garabandal, Spain; and Medjugorje, Bosnia. It was on a return trip to Medjugorje in 1993 that Leary first perceived Jesus and Mary to be calling him, asking him to get ready for something.
About a month after that, He asked me to do a mission for Him, Leary told NCR in an interview in conjunction with his March 15 appearance in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, Mo. Then July 21, 1993, was when they started.
By they, Leary means the visions and interior locutions through which he perceives Jesus, sometimes Mary, and sometimes a saint speaking to him. The visions follow a strict schedule: twice a day, with the first one during morning Mass, immediately after receiving the Eucharist, and the second in the evening, often in the company of his Rochester prayer group. He carries a spiral notebook in which he meticulously records the messages of the day. Each week Learys Internet fan club makes the text of that weeks visions available via E-mail. Four times a year the visions are published as a new volume in Learys Great Tribulation series of books.
They sell briskly. Volume VIII of Prepare for the Great Tribulation and the Era of Peace, put out by tiny Queenship Publishing Company in Santa Barbara, Calif., reached number six on the Catholic bestsellers list, compiled by the Catholic Book Publishers Association. Learys fans also congregate on the Leary Web site, and they discuss his messages online in Usenet groups and on message boards.
In person, Leary is about as far from charismatic as one could get. Hes small -- barely over five feet tall -- and balding, with a tinny voice and shy demeanor that make him an extremely unlikely celebrity. He and his wife, Carol, come across, in her own words, as just ordinary people.
Learys no Hal Lindsey, either -- unlike the author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, a stirring apocalyptic text that sold over 9 million copies, Leary is a dry writer with no pretense of literary flair. When he speaks, he rarely looks up from his prepared text, which is basically an amalgam of themes from messages the audience most likely has already read -- if not from Leary, from other writers and seers with similar ideas.
Yet, during his visit to Overland Park, more than 300 Catholics -- most from the area, though some drove from as far away as Oklahoma and Iowa -- crowded into the cafeteria of an area recreation center and hung on Learys every word. They asked him to autograph his books, they crowded around him during breaks, they sat rapt during his talks and they plunked down money for audio and video tapes of the presentation they had just witnessed.
A Catholic twist
Leary gave his standard stump speech, opening with a bit of personal background and then plunging into the impending Chastisement -- how Satan is consolidating control, when the Antichrist will arrive, what the faithful ones will endure and how God will triumph in the end. The scenario, by most accounts fairly typical of Catholic apocalyptic thinking, seems a mix of conventional right-wing hypotheses and some specifically Catholic variants.
Learys bête noir is the one-worlders, understood as The Council on Foreign Relations. Its the Bildebergers, its the Trilateral Commission, its the Illuminati, the people of the rich power. The people that run the seven nations, all those type of things. The people that run the GATT treaties, the NAFTA, all the high-ups in the Congress. Nobody really gets anything done unless they go through these people. Theyre the ones funding everything. So they are the ones controlling where the wars start, how the economies go in the world, he said.
What are the one-worlders up to? Theyre being controlled by the guy down below. Its preparation for his takeover. Its an abuse of power. These people are the ultimate in powermongers, if you will, trying to control everybody in the whole world.
Leary says theyll seize control by stealth if possible, by force if necessary. Examples of the former would be the use of high-definition TV to monitor peoples living rooms or satellites to track your movements in your car or the coded strips in 20 dollar bills to ascertain how much money you have at any given moment.
Up to this point, Learys visions are hard to distinguish from any number of X-Files episodes. But they take on a more Biblical tone when Leary talks about the mark of the beast.
It could be a bar code, Leary said. Or it could be -- and this is what Ive been getting lately -- a chip that would be put in the hand. That technology is already available. You can put those same chips in your dogs or cats and identify where they are and who they are. The purpose is to control people, because eventually, according to the Bible, when you take the mark of the beast and you give allegiance to the Antichrist, thats going to condemn you. But the reason for having it is so you can buy and sell, and if you dont have that, you wont be able to buy and sell.
Leary says the one-worlders know that not everyone will submit, and theyre ready to use more direct measures. One lady told us that she was at one of these [military] bases that was closed, supposedly, but theres as much activity there as there used to be, Leary said. She noticed how the barbed wire at one time used to be on the outside pointing out, so that it keeps people from coming in, and now recently the barbed wire is headed the other way, keeping people from getting out. She mentioned it to the guard, and the guard told her Youre very observant. So in other words, there are a lot of prison systems all over. People have wondered how come they have so many beds, so many places to stay inside these fences. These are those preparations for the detention centers. They do exist.
Once the one-worlders have concentrated their control, Leary says, then the Antichrist -- an as-yet unidentified leader -- will come forward and demand allegiance. This, of course, is no more than the standard interpretation, in apocalyptic circles, of what is predicted in the Book of Revelation. But Leary adds a new twist -- that an impostor pope will lead people to accept the Antichrist, an impostor who, in Learys scheme, will be the successor to John Paul II.
The pope after John Paul II will actually be an impostor pope in one sense, because theyll say either John Paul is dead or he was exiled, Leary predicts. In other words, they will be putting in another pope in place of him when he hasnt finished his reign. In that sense, the next pope will be an illegitimate pope.
John Paul, meanwhile, will rally the remnant church, those who refuse to bow to the Antichrist. John Paul may not be physically leading us, but he will be leading the remnant church. That would be the ones that are faithful to Rome -- the Rome of today -- the ones that are following the precepts of the catechism and all those type of things, Leary said.
On the other side of that schismatic church would be the new pope that gets put in, who would eventually be accommodating, taking away some of those traditions, to the ultimate at the end of actually worshiping the Antichrist.
Leary says the great schism in some ways has already begun, as some Catholics have already begun moving in the direction of apostasy. People that would be teaching against some of the things about whats a mortal sin, denying whats a mortal sin today. Birth control, even some people dont think abortion is so bad, a lot of the sins of the flesh -- masturbation, for instance. Its the interpretation of what sin is, encouraging people not to go to confession, encouraging people not to attend Mass. Anything that would be against the law of God.
The good guys in this scenario are the remnant church -- the faithful ones who will not be deceived by the impostor and the Antichrist. Learys host in Overland Park, who introduced him to the crowd, proudly proclaimed, We are the remnant, and it was clear in conversation during the breaks that many in the audience saw themselves exactly that way. A survivalist impulse was evident, with lots of talk of hiding in caves and celebrating underground Masses.
When the time comes, Leary continued, the Great Tribulation will occur first, followed by the Great Chastisement. The Great Tribulation is referring to the three and a half years, the 42 months, the 1260 days of the Antichrists reign, Leary says. It says in the scripture that if that time were not shortened for the sake of the elect, they would be lost. So what [the Lord] is showing me is a circling globe of the earth that will be speeding up, so the actual days will go faster.
During this period, faithful Catholics will go into hiding. Here, too, God will help out. The Lord has asked us to set aside about a years supply of food, Leary said. But at the same time, hes been saying that hes merciful in multiplying things, and those that dont have the money or the space to store that much, then he would multiply what you have. Weve been seeing cases of things multiplying. We even had one lady whose pills were multiplying. She had just used her last heart pill. She came back the next day, and there were six more there.
During the time of the Antichrist, our Lord said that if you dont have the chance to go to Mass and receive the Blessed Sacrament, you pray to Jesus for spiritual communion. He would have his angels deliver on your tongue the host. And youd be able to survive on just that if you had to, Leary said.
A comet ends it all
Finally, God will bring things to a close in dramatic fashion. The Great Chastisement, which some people might associate with Garabandal [in Spain], is the final triumph of Jesus against the evil people. That would be, from what Ive seen, from a comet coming.
As for the obvious question upon hearing all of this -- does Leary realize how bizarre it sounds? -- hes serenely confident of eventual vindication. Some people may not be fully in tune with understanding it or want to understand it, but when the things start to happen, theyre going to say, Oh my gosh, we were told about this, he said.
Leary seems unconcerned with factual proof -- hes never tried to see if foreign troops actually are in national parks, for instance, or if high-definition TV really works both ways. He admits freely that there were two or three things that were mentioned [in the visions], and they didnt happen perfectly. It didnt bother my faith, Leary said. [Jesus] told me later, some of these things can be changed.
Leary takes pride in claims of miracles attendant upon his messages, which he interprets as a divine seal of approval. Theres been physical healings. We have an icon in our home that miraculously changed from silver to gold, and weve seen other miraculous things. These are fruits of the work. A picture of the gold icon is available on Learys Web site.
Leary is not profiting from any of his visionary activities, at least not financially. He takes no money for his appearances except to cover his travel expenses, and he takes no royalties from the sale of his book. To all outward appearances, hes a deeply pious, sincere man, troubled by the state of the world and convinced that God has chosen him to speak his warnings.
When he sees a heart thats understanding and trying to stay close to him, like Ive been trying ... he tries to pick instruments that are going to be in tune with what hes trying to do, Leary said. I dont have any other good explanation of why its me.
According to The Catholic Universitys Dinges, Leary is representative of a sort of hardened dissent among Catholic traditionalists. Theres a pervasive apocalyptic thinking among traditionalists, Dinges said, which is driven by a sense of catastrophic malaise in the church and a belief that this could not have been brought about through natural means. There must be a larger cosmic force working in all of this.
Catholic apocalypticism is not, Dinges cautioned, a unified movement -- traditionalists are badly factionalized, he said. Indeed, on the Internet Leary has as many detractors as fans -- one can find John Leary is the Antichrist postings on the same message boards where supporters parse his latest revelations.
But broadly speaking, Dinges says theres a core of agreement on the Catholic far right that both the church and the world are deeply flawed and that a cosmic struggle is the subtext to current events. Apocalyptic movements arise, historians of religion say, when people feel oppressed and powerless to affect their situation. Its telling that so many traditionally inclined Catholics feel that such powerlessness describes their situation today.
Its a reassertion of supernaturalism in a very materialistic culture, Dinges said. Moreover, the notion of Satanic subversion of the church is an old one, with precedents such as the anti-modernist campaign and the excommunication of Masons, Dinges said. In this connection, Dinges argued that it would be a mistake for other Catholics to write off the apocalyptic crowd as kooks. In some ways, theyre simply acting on what earlier generations of Catholics were taught.
So what can be learned from the John Learys of the world, in the spirit of common ground? First, its a commentary on the weakened authority structure in the church, Dinges said. They dont want and they shy away from endorsements from bishops or priests, who in many ways are suspect. It shows how hard it is to lead in todays church. Charismatic authority is more difficult to deal with because it short-circuits institutional conduits, Dinges said.
Another lesson is that apocalypticism and a concern for social justice are a difficult mix. This kind of mentality eviscerates the impetus toward social action, Dinges said. In these schemes, its not very critical since the present order is passing away soon anyway.
Boyer pointed out that apocalypticism shapes believers perceptions of real-world events. Millions of Americans take the view that the rise of a global economy, with multinational corporations and structures like the European Union, is preparing the way for a demonic world system, Boyer said. Its one of the reasons Americans have traditionally felt such antipathy about the United Nations, for example.
Dinges said that efforts to foster dialogue must bring the millenarians and the visionaries into the conversation -- but it wont be easy. These kinds of movements are indicators of the needs and anxieties people have, he said. From a pastoral point of view, you cant ignore it.
The problem is, dialogue works when you have people on opposite ends of the same rope, but these people have a fundamentally different beginning point. The power of their imaginations is such that everything, even offers to dialogue, can be woven into the conspiracy.
Boyer argued that its the seekers on the periphery, not the hard-core devotees, with whom mainstream leaders should be concerned. They can be reached with other understandings of apocalyptic scriptures, Boyer said. You have to address their curiosity. Part of the appeal of people like Hal Lindsey is that church leaders have generally ignored the deep interest people have in these subjects, and so the theological ignorance is so high anyone can come along claiming to have the answers.
For his part, Leary thinks time may be running out for such conversations. I do believe things will be coming to an end before not too long. Our Lady told me she wont be giving any more messages before very long, Leary said. I dont think we have much time to wait.
National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 1998