I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw the disciples away after them. (Acts 20:30-31).
St. Paul calls them savage wolves. Is this hyperbole? No, for their work is to devour the flock. They may do this with subtlety and smooth words, but they (and the evil one who inspires them) devour the flock nonetheless. Let’s ponder this troubling truth in three ways:
I. There are false prophets.
Scripture warns of this repeatedly:
- Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits …. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Mat 7:15, 19-20).
- And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray …. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand (Mat 24:11, 24-25).
- But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed, they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell … (2 Peter 2:1-4).
- There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability (2 Peter 3:16-17).
- But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit (Jude 1:17-23).
- Children, it is the last hour; and just as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But their departure made it clear that none of them belonged to us (1 John 2:18-19).
There are more passages like these, but allow this sample to demonstrate the consistent warning of the apostles that deceivers, scoffers, and false prophets would arise.
II. Of special concern are false prophets who come from within.
There is a special subtlety in this kind of deceiver, especially if he wears a collar or priestly robes, and even more if he be of the rank of bishop. Down through the centuries there has been particular harm caused by wayward clergy. The grief is especially deep because so many of the faithful have been rightly encouraged to love and listen to the clergy.
Therefore, in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul calls them savage wolves. This terminology is true on its face because their goal is to devour and scatter the flock, but St. Paul’s language also indicates an especially sharp pain caused by this sort of betrayal. Other scriptures affirm this deep pain:
- For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me— then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng. Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart (Psalm 55:12-15).
- Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me (Psalm 41:9).
- Even my trusted friends, watching for my fall, say, “Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him and take our revenge on him” (Jer 20:21).
- The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me (Mat 26:23).
- Look! The hand of My betrayer is with Me, even at the table (Luke 22:21).
- Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss? (Luke 22:48)
Yes, there is a special grief when error and sin come from within the Church. It should be enough that the world hates and derides us, but internal wounds are the most painful of all.
Our Lady spoke to St. Agnes Sasagawa in Akita, Japan (an approved apparition) and said with sadness,
The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres … churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord. The demon will be especially implacable against souls consecrated to God (Message of Oct 13, 1973).
III. What are the faithful to do?
First, from the Scriptures above, we must understand the warning that such things would happen. Indeed, they have happened down through history. False prophets arise, even from within. The Lord says thorough His apostles, “Remember that I have told these things would inevitably occur.” Therefore, we ought not be dismayed, but rather sober.
The first Letter of St. John says,
Who is the liar, if it is not the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son can have the Father; whoever confesses the Son has the Father as well. As for you, let what you have heard from the beginning remain in you. If it does, you will also remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that He Himself made to us: eternal life. I have written these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you…And now, little children, remain in Him, so that when He appears, we may be confident and unashamed before Him at His coming. (1 John 2:15ff).
St. Paul adds,
Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema (under a divine curse!) As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you embraced from us, let him be under a divine curse! (Galatians 1:7-9)
The Letter of Jude says,
But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh (Jude 1:20-23).
Catholics today must remember that the teaching of the faith is not simply anything that any clergy of any rank utters. The magisterium is more than that! Everything we hear is to be squared with the consistent teaching of the Church, back through the centuries, as articulated in Scripture and in the doctrinal and dogmatic teachings of the Church. Stay close to the catechism, close to Scripture, close to the Fathers of the Church!
We began with St. Paul’s lament of savage wolves who would seek to mislead and scatter the flock he had labored so hard to build. Mysteriously, the Lord allows some degree of dissent, but He has left us with warnings. Our task is to heed these warnings and judge everything we hear by the deposit of the faith as articulated consistently in the Church down through the ages. Look to the most certain sources: Scripture, the fundamental dogmas of the Faith, the Fathers of the Church, the Catechism, and St. Thomas Aquinas. These are bulwarks for us.
I look to the faithful in the land
that they may dwell with me.
He who walk in the way of perfection
shall be my friend (Psalm 101:6).