A prophecy is a message that is claimed by a prophet to have been communicated to them by a god. Such messages typically involve inspiration, interpretation, or revelation of divine will concerning the prophet’s social world and events to come (compare divine knowledge).
As the term is used in mystical theology, it applies both to the prophecies of canonical Scripture and to private prophecies. Understood in its strict sense, it means the foreknowledge of future events, though it may sometimes apply to past events of which there is no memory, and to present hidden things which cannot be known by the natural light of reason. St. Paul, speaking of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14, does not confine its meaning to predictions of future events, but includes under it Divine inspirations concerning what is secret, whether future or not. As, however, the manifestation of hidden present mysteries or past events comes under revelation, we have here to understand by prophecy what is in its strict and proper sense, namely the revelation of future events. Prophecy consists in knowledge and in the manifestation of what is known. The knowledge must be supernatural and infused by God because it concerns things beyond the natural power of created intelligence; and the knowledge must be manifested either by words or signs, because the gift of prophecy is given primarily for the good of others, and hence needs to be manifested. It is a Divine light by which God reveals things concerning the unknown future and by which these things are in some way represented to the mind of the prophet, whose duty it is to manifest them to others.
The last prophetic work which the Church acknowledges as Divinely inspired is the Apocalypse. The prophetic spirit did not disappear with the Apostolic times, but the Church has not pronounced any work prophetic since then, though she has canonized numberless saints who were more or less endowed with the gift of prophecy. The Church allows freedom in accepting or rejecting particular or private prophecies according to the evidence for or against them. We should be slow to admit and slow to reject them, and in either case treat them with respect when they come to us from trustworthy sources, and are in accordance with Catholic doctrine and the rules of Catholic morality. The real test of these predictions is their fulfilment; they may be only pious anticipations of the ways of Providence, and they may sometimes be fulfilled in part and in part contradicted by events. The minatory prophecies which announce calamities, being for the most part conditional, may or may not be fulfilled. Many private prophecies have been verified by subsequent events, some have not; others have given rise to a good deal of discussion as to their genuineness. Most of the private prophecies of the saints and servants of God were concerned with individuals, their death, recovery from illness, or vocations. Some foretold things which would affect the fate of nations, as France, England, and Ireland. A great number have reference to popes and to the papacy; and finally we have many such prophecies relating to the end of the world and the approach of the Day of Judgment.
- In the first kind God reveals future events according to the order of secondary causes, which may be hindered from taking effect by other causes which would require a miraculous power to prevent, and these may or may not happen, though the prophets do not express it but seem to speak absolutely. Isaias spoke thus when he said to Ezechias: “Take order with thy house, for thou shalt die, and not live” (Isaiah 38:1). To this kind belongs the prophecy of promise, as that mentioned in 1 Kings, ii,30: “I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father should minister in my sight, forever”, which was not fulfilled. It was a conditional promise made to Heli which was dependent upon other causes which prevented its fulfilment.
- The second, that of foreknowledge, takes place when God reveals future events which depend upon created free will and which he sees present from eternity. They have reference to life and death, to wars and dynasties, to the affairs of Church and State, as well as to the affairs of individual life.
- The third kind, the prophecy of predestination, takes place when God reveals what He alone will do, and what he sees present in eternity and in His absolute decree. This includes not only the secret of predestination to grace and to glory, but also those things which God has absolutely decreed to do by His own supreme power, and which will infallibly come to pass.
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