Is It Time to Flee the World?

Light the CityAs we go through the Book of the Prophet Isaiah at Mass, we read of Israel’s painful purifications and also of a coming punishment of the surrounding nations. These ancient stories have something to say to us today.

As Isaiah sets forth, God permitted the nations to persecute Israel in order that she be purified. But the iniquity and sin of the nations and of this world cannot go on forever; wickedness must be ended. The Lord will judge the nations, not merely purify Israel.

In a complex passage, God says (through Isaiah) that although He had used Assyria as a tool to purify Israel, Assyria would not escape punishment for her iniquity. Here is an excerpt:

Woe to Assyria! My rod in anger, my staff in wrath. Against an impious nation [Israel] I send him, and against a people under my wrath I order him to seize plunder, carry off loot …. But this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind; Rather, it is in his heart to destroy …. [And] he says: “By my own power I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am shrewd. I have moved the boundaries of peoples ….” Will the axe boast against him who hews with it? Will the saw exalt itself above him who wields it? As if a rod could sway him who lifts it …. Therefore, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, will send among his fat ones leanness, And instead of his glory there will be kindling like the kindling of fire (Isaiah 10:5-16).

Although God wielded Assyria like an axe to prune Israel, that did not make the axe good. And now it is time for the axe also to be refined as in fire.

What do stories like these have to say to us today? A lot, especially if we see Israel as an image for the Church, and the nations around us as akin to Assyria and Babylon.

For indeed, the Church has been going through a great pruning and purification. The once luxuriant vine of Catholicism and Christendom in the West is reduced. Only 25% of Catholics in the U.S. attend Mass; in Europe the numbers are far worse. Indifference to the faith and to God is widespread. Many are Catholic in name only. Yet for those who remain there is an increasingly fervent experience of the faith. On account of doubt and persecution, many of us are actually clearer about what we believe and why than we were in the past. There has been a great blossoming of Catholic apologetics and media. The smaller numbers of Catholics who remain are getting clearer, more devout, and more creative. And thus we see a pruning and purification that is so often necessary in the Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform).

This purification is being effected by God, who is permitting an increasingly secular and hostile world to afflict the Church. These afflictions take many forms: simple scoffing at our beliefs, the promulgation of error and lies to lead us away from the faith, the excoriating and even criminalization of long-held beliefs of our faith, and even outright martyring of believers.

For the time being, God seems to be permitting the “Assyria” of modern, decadent culture to afflict us. But things do by opposition grow. Even if God is wielding the axe of modernity now, this does not make the axe holy; soon enough the axe will have to answer for its wickedness.

What are faithful Catholics to do under the current circumstances? The answer to this may vary based our state in life (parent, priest, married, single, young, old, etc.). Many younger families are choosing to “hunker down” and live as isolated from our toxic culture as possible: homeschooling, restricting television viewing, and/or limiting Internet access.

Others have chosen to engage the culture boldly in order to seek its conversion and/or to rescue as many as possible from its grip.

Both approaches are certainly valid. But as we journey further into the darkness, the banners of tolerance under which the revolutionaries marched are increasingly being exposed for what they really are: banners of tyranny. They never really meant what they said about tolerance; it was just a smoke screen. Under the new tyranny, our options for influencing the culture are decreasing; faithful Catholics proclaiming ancient truths are seeing their religious liberty erode. Merely quoting certain Scripture passages or reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church is being labeled hate speech. There are increasing efforts to compel faithful Catholics and others to directly cooperate in evils such as contraception, abortion, and euthanasia.

With all this in mind, a text from another part of Isaiah seems appropriate for an increasing number of Catholics:

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath has passed by. For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain (Is 26:21-22).

In effect, this text advises the faithful to hunker down and preserve the faith by seeking to live as far apart from the prevailing culture as possible. Now that Israel’s purification was bearing fruit, God was preparing to punish the nations that afflicted His faithful in Israel.

A possible modern application of this text is to view the wickedness in current Western culture as a sign of the wrath of God, who is allowing it to collapse under the weight of its own sin. A kind of delusion and lunacy has taken hold that reminds one of a rabid animal madly running around in circles. Rabid animals are not to be engaged; flee from them!

Much as in the days of Noah, our job may well be to hunker down and preserve the faith from the flood of rebellion. Scripture says,

The nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her immorality. The kings of the earth were immoral with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown wealthy through the extravagance of her luxury. Then I heard another voice from heaven say: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven …” (Rev 18:3-5).

I will punish Bel in Babylon and make him spew out what he has swallowed. The nations will no longer stream to him. And the wall of Babylon will fall. Come out of her, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the Lord. But do not lose heart or be afraid … (Jer 51:44-46).

In the months and years ahead, the priority for many in the Church may shift to a protective stance, a kind of hunkering down while God’s judgment brings an end to the evils in the cultures and nations around us.

This of course is not the usual stance of the Church, which ordinarily is to be zealously evangelical. But even the first evangelists were told by Jesus that in the face of fierce opposition to the Gospel they were to flee: When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another (Matt 10:24). There are times to hole up in the enclosure of the ark in order to preserve the life and light of the Gospel and then emerge again when the storms of destruction have passed by.

What does all of this mean to you? You must decide. Some may be called to isolate their families in order to preserve them from the caustic culture. Others may be called to engage with this world and seek to save as many as possible. But increasingly, the Church is simply not going to be able to make the compromises that the world will require.

Isaiah’s prophecies are not merely locked in the past; they are operative now as well.

In the video below, Bishop Robert Barron does a wonderful job of describing this stance (hunkering down) that the Church must occasionally take. It is a stance that is less one of hiding thank of preserving the faith so that it can be set loose later, with its purity still intact.

28 Replies to “Is It Time to Flee the World?”

  1. This, Msgr Pope, seems to be the thing I struggle with the most when I pray on what my family is to do.

    Do I hunker down like the Benedict option? Or do I take the Franciscan option: march forward with reckless abandon and let the holy spirit figure out the rest.

    I’m a young father. I can’t raise my kids to be Pharisees but I also can’t just throw my kids headfirst into the world. I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t.

    I’m not an expert in Thomism, I’m no rocket theologian, I’m just one man, often the only man. I can’t wade through the minefield of the modern day and not be complicit with someone’s sin in the process.

    Here’s one example, there’s a thousand more. Where I live they eliminated Mother and Father from birth certificates. Should God bless my wife and I with another child, have I denied the Creator or his creation by signing as simply ” parent number 2″?

    I pray to Our Lady all the time because it seems like if I engage the world around me in any faculty I’m going to sin, but if I just isolate myself I’ve commited the same sin only the other way around.

    Like I said Msgr, I’m no rocket theologian, I’m no expert in Thomism. I’m just one man and no man is an island.

    1. I feel for you Adam. I feel caught in the same way at times these days. I am currently a seminarian but I was working as an officer in the Navy until last year and felt my faith compromised a number of times by government forms, procedures, and requirements (for instance, a sailor in my division requested permission to miss work for IVF treatment and there was nothing legally I could do to deny that time off). The priest-chaplain onboard that ship recently told me that now LGBT month is a required celebration onboard the ship and the leadership must participate in various ways. Where does this leave a Catholic who is supposed to be the leaven in society? We are starting to endanger our conscience it seems…

    2. Don’t worry Adam, however it may seem you’re not the only one. I’m frequently trying to decipher this world and our missing in it for my own young family. Praise God for holy spouses! Though we may never meet, let’s support each other with our prayers, eh?

    3. I think you should stand up for the apostolic faith in your own family, prove to be faithful. Do the best that you can for this. Turn the rest over to God.

    4. Adam
      This will take a little set up, but I promise to get to your question.

      I’m a father of four. When I was a father of two I started wrestling with the church’s teaching on birth control (my wife and I were contracepting). This is a long and convoluted story so I’ll skip to the punch line. This created stress in our marriage. My misguided notion that I needed to convince my wife (who was told she could die with the next pregnancy) to try NFP came to a head while I was travelling and she was home with our two children. She hung up on me three times crying. I knelt down in my hotel room and told God I was done trying to convince her. If it was his will, he had to make it happen. I couldn’t believe it was his will that we get divorced over this and leave two kids with a broken family. I said a rosary and when I was done (but before I could stand up) the phone in my hotel rang and my wife calmly told me she was ready to try NFP (she was visited immediately after she hung up on me by a very devout friend). When I hung up I looked up, put my hands in the air and yelled, “Why didn’t you take care of this before all the arguments?”.

      I’m not exaggerating when I say I audibly heard the words, “You never asked”. It’s the ONLY time I’ve ever had an experience like this, but it’s had a profound effect on my life (notwithstanding two more souls for the kingdom).

      1. We’ve had some pretty life changing medical challenges with our youngest. This experience helped me remember he wouldn’t have been around if my wife and I hadn’t first stepped out in obedience. It’s hard to remember when we are in the thick of trying to protect and raise our family that those little souls are Gods beloved. He knew them and loved them before we ever thought of them. When times were very dark, I looked back on the fruits of obedience and trust and while it didn’t take away the trial, it gave me peace. I knew whatever happened, it was in my Fathers hands.

      2. I ASK for guidance and help with everything now. I know God in his wisdom will make his will known if he feels that’s what I need. If I don’t get a clear direction, I take the Indignation approach to discernment. Interestingly, I am wrestling with your same questions about where my family is safest with this storm gathering. I list pro’s and con’s, I pray, I ask, and I pay attention to the options that bring me peace. To be quite frank, my gut tells me we will be most protected not in a ‘place’ but placing our trust in God. That can sound trite until you’ve actually had to TRUST God.

      Be at peace Adam. God is moving!

  2. Thank you Monsignor for this post. We all need to hear this. It would seem that those who would remain faithful must be prepared to look for and to follow the will of God day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. The days of thinking that this will be a problem for our children and grandchildren a la Hezekiah are long gone. The crisis is right here right now and staring us in the face.

    Thank you again for this post and for all that you do with this blog.

  3. Adam,

    Yes, I am completely tracking with you. I am a father of 7 children (2 with the Lord, 5 with us). I have struggled with exactly the dilemma you describe. Oh, boy, have I struggled with it! I can share two (hopefully helpful) things with you.

    First, advice from a very wise friend of mine: “Watch the environment in which you place yourself and your family. Are you affecting it for good, or is it affecting you for the worse? When the second one begins to be the defining element, it is time to disengage.” I have found that helpful, especially when we finally made the decision to pull our oldest daughter out of the very toxic school environment (“Catholic” school, kind of) in 5th grade.

    The second is a story of a family we know who firmly believed in the engagement philosophy. So committed were they to their children being salt and light in the public schools that they sent them there, even when their children began to protest and ask to be homeschooled. Yet, two years later, when we visited, we found them homeschooling and loving it.

    There is a time to disengage, but it must be prayerfully discerned in my experience. The tough thing about it is that you can’t just follow someone else, because families and people can be so very different that what works beautifully for one may be disastrous for another.

    As it stands now, we homeschool all of our 5 children — that from a couple that said they would homeschool “only if God writes it across the sky.” For some people we know, however, that is definitely not the correct decision.

    I realize that this post is not specifically talking about homeschooling, but for us, that is the main area in which we have had to tackle, in a very concrete way, the issues that Msgr. Pope raises here.

  4. Wasn’t this hunkering down exactly what was going on in the so-called “Dark Ages”? It turned out to be the greatest flowering of the monastic movement in the history of Christendom! The solution to the problems in the Church and culture is for the children of God to “listen to Him” (Luke 9:35). The only way we can hear that “still small voice” is in contemplation. It is not going to be heard amidst the noise of the world. The Benedict option is only appropriate option now! Amen, Msgr. Pope.

  5. Dare I suggest it, but could it be possible that the appropriate strategy is, not to attempt to restrain the collapse of society, but to encourage the obstinately godless in their self-destructive and fratricidal activity. Reserving the good and the true to those who convert to Christ? That would have the advantage of getting rid of the wicked sooner rather than later, so that they won’t be able to corrupt our children.

    1. No, because they are still human beings and God still loves them and we should, too. At the very least, encouraging the godless in their sin would make you an accessory to it. Let your Yes be Yes, don’t hide your candle under a basket, etc. I agree that disengagement is appropriate now, but let’s not despair of saving a few lives here and there.

    2. If the godless choose to be obstinate that is their own affair, but we should not be encouraging it. Encouraging self destruction and fratricide is in no way part of the Gospel.

  6. “If not I,then Who”. Diversities of the every day life add ever greater complexities to understanding what was and what is. My virtual singular source of strength lies in daily Mass and prayers and the frequent saying of the petition “JESUS,I TRUST IN YOU”. It seems awful small of an effort to combat so large of a need but the story of ‘The Mustard Seed’ has always produced its own solution. No words flow easily from me but if personal example can substitute as a means of testimony, than I can help preach my Faith.

  7. Above all, we must avoid being too afraid to make a move. We have our Faith-make use of it and all that it contains-various devotions, prayers,sacramentals and Sacraments and Mass. This is a time to pray for discernment to do the right thing-the Will of God. If we make use of this God given arsenal then we need only to trust. Trust that God will help us. We are never alone. I believe that this is what God wants of us now. Only God can overcome this great evil in the world. God will make His move when we turn to Him with complete trust. 5

  8. Monsignor,
    Thank you for showing us that the prophets not only gave warnings to the chosen people but also guidance about how the faithful ones were to live apart from the prevailing culture in order to save themselves and preserve the faith. I also think that you are correct when you write, “Isaiah’s prophecies are not merely locked in the past; they are operative now as well.” I have found that many think that the Old Testament prophets only spoke to the particular situations of their times (from a course on the Prophets given by a well known university). I think it is very wise of you, for these times that we are living in, to remind us of the applicability of God’s trancendent messages through His ancient prophets for us today.

    1. Yes, the OT Prophecies often had a three-fold effect. 1) For the time of the prophet or near distant future; 2) For the time of the 1st coming of Christ (1st century AD); and 3) For the rest of the Christian era, but in particular, the last days (second coming of Christ). This is proven by the Book of Revelation which has a synthesis of OT prophecies (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, etc.)as relating to the last days.

  9. Oh darn! I was following along till the last paragraph. Bishop Barron has said many troubling things, about salvation and Hell, about Adam and Eve (“Adam. Now, don’t read it literally. We’re not talking about a literal figure. We’re talking in theological poetry. Adam: the first human being . . .”). He (Bishop Barron) is not someone I look to with theological certainty.

    1. Hmm…. Well worst case scenario, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Best Case scenario: stay in the conversation, I don’t think B. Barron is as definitive as you say. You might even change his mind if you don’t just put him on an enemies list.

  10. Prudence “is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation.” It does not flee the world, but lives of God in the world.

    In the case of living by, teaching, and fighting for freedom of conscience, prudence “immediately guides the judgment of conscience.” As prudence does not flee the world, so it is not by fleeing the world that we live by, teach, and fight for freedom of conscience.

    With the help of prudence “we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.” With prudence, we can discern which school to send children and how much media to use – neither of which is “fleeing the world,” but exercise of the human right to choose one’s children’s school and exercise of the human virtue of temperance.

    Jesus by His Perfect Humanity is endowed with all the virtues, and so with prudence. He prudently did not flee persecution, but sacrificed Himself for us. He prudently did not flee stoning, but miraculously escaped death – just as, if He so willed it, He could have had more than twelve legions of angels come rescue Him, just as He had angels minister to Him after His Temptation.

    Christ did not flee the world, but lived, died, and rose again in the world, before ascending back into Heaven and sending His Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

    Jesus was obedient unto death by obeying and fulfilling the Law unto death, in accordance with Jewish faith and self-sacrifice (yehareg ve’al ya’avor); for He came not to abolish but fulfill God’s Word and accomplish God’s Will, being One in Will with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Consubstantial Trinity, and He sacrificed Himself on the Cross, out of love for us, for us men and for our salvation.

    So we must not “flee the world” but combat our sins, worldliness and concupiscence; we must exercise prudence and all the virtues like Christ, with and through and in Christ; we must live of God in the world.

    In short, we are not the victims of a genocide, like the ongoing Laogai. Rather than “flee the world,” let us help the victims of the Laogai as China continues to persecute anti-Communists, good-willed persons, human rights activists, big families, the Church and other religious communities.

    While we may be persecuted in small ways by the HHS mandate, forceful gay marriages, and legal actions against religious freedom, yet we can still proffer our sufferings, exercise our right to self-defense (which is not the same as murder), and pray and do penance for the Laogai victims. We need not flee America, but “flee from sin and pursue justice” – not by fleeing the world, but by combating our sins, worldliness, and concupiscence, by exercising the virtues, and by living of God in the world like Jesus.

    1. John 15-17 is the key and answer (which fits completely in line with what Msgr. has said above). Even the 1st Christians had to flee to Pella, outside the Roman territories under Roman persecution (Eusebius: Church History. 3, 5, 3).

      And I would not call what the government is doing or the LGBT agenda “Small persecutions.” What has already come is shocking. What is to come will be intolerable.

  11. I don’t get it. What is so bad about today’s culture. I’m glad I don’t own a TV or read culture war articles. If you step back, I think you’ll see things are not bad at all. In fact, things seem pretty good. Now, if you were a priest in the Levant, then this article would make sense.

    1. Charles,

      I recall a certain Family Circus comic. The child is hiding in the closet with his eyes covered, thinking that if he can’t see anyone, then nobody can see him. The point is, just because you choose to close your eyes to what’s going on in the world, it doesn’t mean it isn’t occurring. Or take the frog who doesn’t notice that the pot of water he’s in has risen from room temperature to boiling. The fact that he doesn’t notice doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

      I admire your choice to tune out, but things are getting worse exponentially. I have taught religion in Catholic schools for almost 15 years, and over that time, paying attention to the culture so I can guide students in viewing currents events through a Gospel lense, I find myself flabbergasted over the kind of things that are occurring now versus when I started teaching. It literally seems as if the majority of people have completely and utterly lost their minds just within the last few years. I now have teenage students who regularly challenge Church teaching and natural law regarding homosexual acts, transgenderism, gender identity, etc. This would have been UNTHINKABLE 15 years ago, and LAUGHABLE if someone actually had thought these things.

      Things are changing brother, and Msgr. Pope is inspired, I dare say, in getting us to think more seriously about the choices we have before us. I am so grateful that he did, because my family has been struggling with this for a few years now. I’ve been of the opinion that Pope Benedict had it right, and that the Church needed to get smaller and more pure before it could re-evangelize a culture in ruins. Never before, however, have I seen this cast in a biblical perspective, with Israel as the image of the Church. Brilliant insight.

    2. We still have a TV but are turning it off more and it is becoming more and more difficult to watch even innocuous shows as the advertisements are routinely for sexual lubricants, drugs for erectile dysfunction, and even homosexual propaganda. Citing places that are worse is meaningless.

  12. I was blessed to have friends who all stayed married and so we were able to be encouraged to stay married too. There are ALWAYS grounds for divorce! And I mention this because in a culture of increasing degradation we need to hang with folks who are going to support our values when the disintegrating culture won’t. We need a group of true friends who encourage us toward virtue, who can help us create islands, oasis of love, peace, faith. Then one day those islands of God’s people will be able to expand and gather others. Endure to the end.

  13. My adult children{in their twenties and thirties) attend Mass every Sunday and are strong in their Catholic identity and faith. They were, and are planning to, be married in the Catholic church. We homeschooled them in the heart of a major metropolitan area so they were never sheltered. Yet most of their waking hours during those formative years were spent with their parents, great literature, parish team sports, and other activities that were soul building rather than soul destroying. If you can do it, homeschool. It is so much fun! Any sacrifices involved(we could’t afford a house until my husband and I were close to 50 since we were a one income family) are as nothing compared to the amazing returns. God bless!

  14. I propose “both/and”.

    As the Catechism reminds us:

    “[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners. . . . They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws. . . . So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.”

    We live right now in a pervertarian empire, so it helps to recall Our Lord’s words when he sent the seventy. “Behold I send you as lambs among wolves.”

    I suggest we act like a non-violent insurgency and build where we can. Like the instruction to take no purse, we should take no government money or benefits–it always comes with strings. When the wolves come to destroy what you have built, and they will, pull up stakes, shake the dust off your feet, disappear, and build again elsewhere. Be not afraid. The darker things get the easier it is to see where the light is coming from.

  15. Nick, you are perfectly right in your response. It certainly looks good on paper. You are forgetting that GOD calls some to leave the world so to speak. Apparently He has not called you, and that is wonderful that you are listening and acting upon the will of God for YOUR life. You are under the belief, false I might add, that leaving the world is some act of cowardice. You have no idea the persecution, criticism, rejection, and very often shame involved in answering the call of God to “leave the world.” To take your family and flee. It isn’t what many think. Families all holed up, shielding themselves and their children from all bad things, micro protecting and controlling every thought and move to avoid contamination. If God has asked for it, then trust that it will prove difficult and there will be persecution to suffer. If God has asked you to leave the world, He also has a mission for you outside the world. Intercession, burden-bearing, etc. to name a few. It is a difficult call, and extremely unpopular. It makes sense that with the decline of intercessory convents and religious, the lay people must step in and assume the role of intercessor. If families are submissive and surrendered to God, they can be a very powerful force for His designs to be carried out in this world without being “in” the world.

  16. I do feel like fleeing this country and preparing a place for my family when their eyes are opened. They currently embrace this culture. But where to go?

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