In the First Reading (1Kings 19:16, 19-21) we are told of the prophet Elijah and his successor. Prophecy in our ordinary understanding is about foretelling the future. However, in the Bible that is not how it is understood. Rather a prophet in the OT is one who speaks on behalf of God; he is God’s spokesperson. He is called to proclaim God’s will and to ensure that God’s people remain faithful to the Covenant and Law proclaimed by God on Mt Sinai. The four most important prophets among the Jewish people were: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Now, in fulfilling their role as God’s representatives it is no surprise to read that the prophets were often called to proclaim a message that was critical of the attitudes and activities that were common among the people at any particular time and especially critical of the way the kings of Israel were behaving and leading the people. This was the prophet’s vocation and because of it, the prophets were regularly quite unpopular people. Perhaps the best example of that was Jeremiah who was persecuted and imprisoned for what were seen as his defeatist pronouncements (Jer. 37:11-21). However, apart from that, his basic declaration as God’s spokesman was his inspired and inspiring prophecy of the New Covenant (Jer. 31).
One occasionally hears it said nowadays, that such and such a person, perhaps a very spiritual person or even a theologian, is a real prophet or has made a prophetic statement. What is one to make of such a comment? Clearly the person making the comment takes the view that the statement he/she is referring to is a very wise remark and points in a real sense to what the future should be in a particular matter or area of church life. It involves, then, an implied criticism of the present situation and expresses a hope and maybe even a call for a different state of things for the future. So, for example, some today say that Pope Francis is being truly prophetic when he calls for and works to promote a ‘poor church for a poor people’. Or again, others consider it prophetic if they hear a call for the ordination of women deacons in the Catholic Church and, even more so, if someone decries the ban on ordaining women and asserts that having women priests, as some other Christian denominations have, is highly desirable and ought to be a part of the renewal of the Church in our time.
But, as in OT days, such prophetic calls evoke criticism and even rejection from not a few quarters in our Church today, ranging from cardinals to theologians to devout Catholics in the pews. So we hear of stern opposition to Pope Francis and to some of his policies as Pope at the present time, while others call for significant change in church structures and laws that have long been in place.
Our First Reading in this Mass, then, brings to mind not just prophecy but also its relevance for today’s Church. Prophecy is, of course, a gift from God to his People but it is a gift that not all can discern or appreciate. Our Church at the present time is enjoying this gift of prophecy but also its almost inevitable accompaniment of contrary viewpoints and fear for the future of the Church, its mission and its ministry.