The concept “signs of the times” was introduced into official Catholic terminology by Pope John XXIII in the 1961 apostolic constitution Humanae Salutis (HS): “We know that the sight of these evils so depresses the minds of some people that they see nothing but darkness, which they think entirely envelops the world. We, on the other hand, love to reaffirm our unshakable confidence in the divine Savior of the human race, who has by no means abandoned the mortals he has redeemed. On the contrary, following the admonitions of Christ the Lord, who exhorts us to interpret ‘the signs of the times’ (Matt 16:3), amidst such dark gloom we discern not a few signs that seem to offer the hope of a better era for the Church and for humanity” (HS 4).

In our pilgrimage through history where disorder and confusion seem to prevail, God continues to speak of his redeeming care via the signs of the times. We need, therefore, to recognize and interpret them in order to understand how they communicate the loving providence of God.

What are the signs of the times in general?

In the Christian perspective there are three major categories of signs of the times: primordial, perennial and episodic. The Christ event in its totality is the primordial sign of the times, in the sense that all other signs must be interpreted in its light. There are two perennial signs: Creation,  revealing God’s providence and the course of history, pointing to God’s continuing involvement. Finally, the episodic signs refer to particular historical events, with both positive and negative outcomes. To identify them and to grasp their meaning requires discernment. While all of creation as well as times of peace and harmony might more easily show God’s providence, troubled times usually require a social and personal internalization, leading to repentance and purification.

In order to recognize the signs of the times, it is necessary to understand the language of the Spirit, who speaks in different “languages” at varied times. It may be in the form of a gentle breeze, a radiant dawn or a lush green canopy where the Divine Artist is at His best. On the other hand, we can also hear the Spirit in the cry of the poor, in the silent groans of the sick and dying, in the frustration of stranded migrants, in the revolt of the oppressed masses, in the violence with which the exploited cosmos responds to ecological degradation, or in the important impulses we feel in our inner selves. Consequently, it is clear that in the process of trying to discern such language of the Spirit, contemplation and discernment must be accompanied by insights that come from the humanities and faith.

Some Fathers of the Church, including Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor and Augustine, attached great importance to reading creation in order to comprehend divine wisdom and the message it addresses to humanity. They considered Scripture and the created world as two “books” which, so to speak, reveal God to us.

Benedict XVI sees a sign of the times in the crisis situation that the world and the Church are going through. However painful or even cruel the crisis may be in itself, it can be an opportunity for the Reign of God to become manifest.[1] Moreover, Benedict XVI uses the expression “eschatological realism” to indicate a perennial coming of the Lord, to which we must respond by practicing mercy.[2]

We can identify some responses to the signs of the times in the emergence of new theologies, exegeses, liturgies and faith practices that address personal and social issues. On the other hand, the emergence of these same realities can be a sign of the times that points to a specific activity of the Spirit. The signs of the times in each age, giving rise to new and more appropriate theologies, necessarily call into question the current ones, their content, structure, methods and conclusions.

Understanding time and history

The tradition of the Christian faith usually makes a distinction between chronos and kairos, identifying in the former the normal chronological course and in the latter a time of grace or time of fulfillment. However, following God’s decisive entry into our history through the Incarnation of the Son, these two times must be seen as radically related: chronos flows within the broader structure of kairos, so that kairos constitutes the profound dimension of chronos. Whatever appears on the surface level has a deeper dimension and meaning in God’s grace-filled kairoi. Discerning this depth dimension amounts to reading the signs of the times.

This way of looking at chronos differs from historical positivism that investigates “what really happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, in the words of Leopold von Ranke). Instead, history, when we see it characterized by signs of the times, becomes symbolic of something else.

Prophetic signs

Words and symbolic acts are two modes of prophecy that we find in the Bible. Sometimes those words and acts seem to present an anthropomorphic caricature of God. However, there is much more in them than appears at first glance. Abraham Joshua Heschel points out: “it is perhaps more proper to describe a prophetic passion as theomorphic than to regard the divine pathos as anthropomorphic.”[3] And again, “God’s unconditional concern for justice is not an anthropomorphism. Rather, human concern for justice is a theomorphism.”[4] The God of pathos is not exempt from communicating through the pathos of the prophet.

It is helpful to consider biblical prophecies as interpretations, by the prophets, of the inner movement of the Spirit, as they sense it within themselves in specific contexts, rather than as exact and detailed predictions of future events. Prophets are known more for their insight into the present than for precise anticipation of the future. Therefore, the failure of their predictions to be realized does not necessarily nullify the authenticity of their “mystical experience”. The apparent failure of prophecy or the seeming non-fulfillment of God’s promise can be the signs of the times that call for an examination of conscience and change of heart.

Principles of interpretation

Authoritative theologians, including some exponents of Liberation Theology, have proposed eight principles for interpreting the signs of the times.

1) To know the signs of the times, firstly one needs to be deeply rooted in faith, as well as in those times. Among other things, this implies an openness to the experience of others, and in particular of the victims of history. This is possible only in and through a life open to fraternity and solidarity.

2) A historical sign, being polysemic in nature, can involve more than a particular individual or community can grasp in a specific context. This is due in part to the limited nature of our existence and understanding and, on the other hand, revelation cannot be reduced to a positive science.[5]

3) The secular world believes that human beings shape the meaning of everything they perceive. But, within a religious worldview, meaning pre-exists humanity and invites humans to grasp it.[6] “In the beginning was the Logos” (John 1:1): the meaning of all that has come into existence lies in the Logos and subsists through him. This apparent conflict between the world of secular and religious meaning can be overcome by recognizing and interpreting the signs of the times in the light of faith. The “pre-existent” and the “historically produced” meanings are the two poles of any healthy theology.

4) Identifying and interpreting the signs of the times is a properly theological-spiritual task. It goes beyond a mere social analysis. An important presupposition here is that God has made himself present in human history. Rightly, therefore, Gaudium et Spes (GS) invites us to discern the signs of God’s presence and purpose in the events, needs and desires of people of our times.

5) Deciphering the signs of the times requires discernment. In fact, except for the Christ event, no sign of the time, however positive, can be considered entirely as a sign of the presence of God’s grace in the world. Sin and grace always coexist in every event. On the other hand, we cannot interpret a historical tragedy simply as God’s punishment. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, in order to read the signs of the times, one must involve oneself in God’s redemptive work.

6) With regard to the reception of God’s redemptive proclamation, the tradition of the Judeo-Christian faith undoubtedly gives a privileged place to the poor and the oppressed. Whether it is the founding event of the Exodus, the prophets, Hanna’s Song, Mary’s Magnificat, or the announcement of Jesus’ mission, the Bible never fails to mention the sufferings of the poor and oppressed as God’s preferred place for his saving self-revelation.

7) In interpreting the signs of the times, faith, ethics and social analysis must go hand in hand.[7] Without a faith perspective, social analysis would stop at the mere phenomenon, losing sight of the deeper dimensions of reality. Without a social analysis and an ethical commitment, faith would end up being mere piety, proposing unrealistic answers. The signs of the times, when we understand them as the results of God’s presence and action in human history, also have an eschatological dimension. They are given in view of the fulfillment of history, and therefore must be understood as the future impinging on the present, bringing a continuous newness to the here and now.[8]

8) Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens entrusts to the Christian communities the responsibility of analyzing the life situation and understanding it in the light of the Gospel in their respective countries (cf. No. 4). In this process, a sign of the times can also manifest itself as a challenge to a contemporary belief system, a religious practice, an interpretation of Scripture, a theological position, an ethical norm, and so on. For example, the question has been asked, “Can there be theology after Auschwitz?” Similarly, the fact that Christians were oppressing other Christians in Latin America was seen as the “day of judgment”: “Both oppressor and oppressed claim loyalty to the same Church. They are both baptized in the same baptism and participate together in the breaking of the same bread, the same body and blood of Christ. There we sit in the same Church, while outside Christian policemen and soldiers are beating up and killing Christian children or torturing Christian prisoners to death while yet other Christians stand by and weakly plead for peace. The Church is divided against itself, and its day of judgment has come.”[9]

Situations of this kind, when taken as a challenge to the life of the Church, can occasion introspection and change of heart and structures.

The Church as interpreter of the signs of the times

Since the Church is the visible sign of the Kingdom (cf. Lumen Gentium [LG], No. 1), it is part of her vocation to interpret the signs of the times (cf. GS 4). In this process, “the People of God, […] led by the Spirit of the Lord, […] seeks to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People has a part, along with other people of our age” (GS 11). Therefore, the Church should, “in a manner suited to each generation,” respond to “the perennial questions which people ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other” (GS 4). In general, this role of the Church is identified with her prophetic mission. The prophetic character of the Church has two dimensions: the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and its ethical implications, together with the denunciation of sin and idolatry.[10] In addition, an essential component of her becoming the interpreter of signs is that of being the conscience of society, thus calling for personal and social conversion.

This vocation of the Church has always provoked opposition and persecution. Referring to situations of this kind, St. Oscar Romero said: “Preaching is relatively easy […], but when one tries to incarnate that teaching, conflicts arise […]. In truth, every priest, religious and lay person who wants to proclaim the Gospel of Christ will have to suffer persecution” (Homily, July 16, 1978). “It would be sad if in a country where such horrible murders occur we did not find priests among the victims. They are the testimony of a Church incarnate in the problems of the people” (Homily, June 21, 1979).

By its very nature, the Church, as a sign of the Kingdom, must help correct and change the policies of governments when they oppose the poor. At the same time, she cannot ignore those obvious signs of the times manifested in the proliferation of Pentecostal sects, some of which preach the gospel of prosperity in the very midst of abject poverty.[11] The situation of mass poverty and misery calls for a change of heart, especially of those who provoke and perpetuate these inhuman conditions. On the other hand, humanity is hungry and thirsty for something more than mere food, clothing and shelter. In the first case, we have the Lord’s command: “Feed them” (Matt 14:16); in the second, we hear his invitation: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me” (John 7:37). The Church must interpret these signs of the times and give a concrete response.

While fulfilling her role of recognizing and interpreting the signs of the times in the world, the Church should not forget to read those same signs in her own life. She is a pilgrim Church with an eschatological goal (cf. 1 Cor 13:9-10). Therefore, whatever she encounters on her way, is in a process of development and progress, and the signs of the times are “indications of the path,” means by which the word of God addresses her as a pilgrim in the world.

The Incarnate Word as the definitive sign

From a Christian perspective, the Incarnate Word is the definitive “sign” of the past, present and future, because he is the Alpha and Omega (cf. Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Theologian Karl Rahner shifts the point of conclusion of the original Christian revelation from the “traditional” death of the last apostle to the death of Jesus. For him, “revelation closed with the successful death of Jesus, the crucified and risen one, that is, with the cross, because their God has pledged Himself irrevocably to history. Beyond this final Word of God, God can say nothing more.”[12]

In his theology of sign, Ignacio Ellacuría introduces an important distinction between the “perennial sign” and “other signs.” The latter must be identified in light of the former. For him, the “perennial sign” is the crucified people of all times, whose “crucifixion” looks back to that of the Servant of the Lord. For Jon Sobrino, the crucified people is the real presence of the crucified Christ in history.[13] The whole of history belongs to the Crucified and Risen One. He frees it from the “elemental forces of the universe” (Col 2:20).[14] And so, wherever there are concrete episodes of such liberation, one can recognize a sign of the times as a partial embodiment of the “definitive Sign of all times.”

Natural Theology and Historical Theology

In Latin American Liberation Theology, history has acquired a renewed importance as a “theological place.” From the point of view of the Incarnation, we should therefore recognize the graced status of history, despite the distortions brought about by sin.

History is the “place of revelation,” and therefore the “theological place,” as well because of the immanence of the transcendent Spirit, as Paul suggests in chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans. It is the dynamism of the Holy Spirit that gives rise to the sigh of creation for freedom from its transitory existence. The same Spirit causes the human spirit to groan in order to be redeemed from death; and it is the same Spirit that prays within us in ways that are “beyond our comprehension.”[15] Obviously, this indwelling Spirit gives rise to the signs of the times, which generate a sense of hope in the human heart, right in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations. All these signs can be interpreted as emblematic of the activity of the Spirit, who continually guides creation toward the rise of a new creation. And we are invited to cooperate responsibly with this dynamism of the Spirit.

Since history is the “theological locus,” theology must also be a “public theology,” which in turn possesses a fully Incarnational character. This is because history is the common home of all humanity, a public element. Therefore, a public theology, which has “public concerns,” a “public language of articulation code,” and a “public praxis,” would be able to read and interpret the signs of the times. However, because no public element is monolithic in its interests and interpretation, public theology is often subject to contrary opinions on every issue. Care must be taken, therefore, to prevent public issues from unilaterally setting the agenda for theology: they must always be determined in dialogue with Scripture.

Signs of the times and interreligious dialogue

The texts we will now quote highlight the importance of ecumenical and interreligious collaboration in discerning the signs of the times, that is, the need to discover God’s presence and purpose in the “happenings, needs and desires […] of our age” (GS 11). The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration Nostra Aetate [NA] perceived the love of “God, whose providence, manifestations of goodness and saving design extend to all” (NA 1), and declared that even non-Christian religions reflect a ray of divine Truth (cf. NA 2). From an ecumenical perspective, the conciliar Decree Unitatis Redintegratio [UR] affirmed that all who are “justified in baptism by faith are incorporated into Christ” and “are rightly recognized as brothers and sisters in the Lord” (UR 3).

Between the “signs of the times” and the Gospel there can be a certain reciprocity as they are read and understood. The “signs of the times” are read in the light of the Gospel, and the Gospel, in turn, can be actualized if it is read in dialogue with the signs of the times. The Gospel, understood as the Word that God addresses to humanity, although it has been incarnated in a definitive form in the Christian religion, does not fail to see signs of the Word in other religious traditions (cf. Heb 1:1).

Therefore, the spirit of dialogue and its theological foundation, as the documents we have cited show, make interreligious dialogue useful for interpreting the signs of the times in the light of many religious traditions. What is blurred and ambiguous for one tradition may become clearer and brighter in the light of another. Perhaps a process of comparison can be initiated, from which the purification of those traditions in a context of authentic dialogue can result. Different religious traditions and philosophical systems often propose concepts, metaphors and symbols that are very useful in transposing the biblical message into publicly accessible spheres, where the signs of the times can be read in an interreligious key.

Some signs of the present times

In light of the preceding considerations, some signs of the present times might be discerned.

People or popular movements that oppose injustice in a nonviolent way and strive to usher in peace are seen both as signs of the times and as outcomes of responding to them in light of the Gospel. They may, in fact, constitute a call from Christ to follow him in his mission today.[16]

Another sign of our times is forced migration, which demands responses from all people of good will. From a Christian perspective, migrants are not only people who depend on the charity of others, but “they manifest in their flesh the real presence of Christ […]. The face of Jesus, in whom we shall one day read our judgment, already mysteriously gazes on us, especially through the faces of those we see as others.”[17] In fact, Pope Francis has put migrants at the top of the list of urgencies, both exhorting us to commit ourselves to them and to take this commitment personally.

Any other current burning issue, such as Covid-19, planetary injustice, the problem of world hunger, the suppression of innocent life, decreasing birth rates, environmental degradation of an unprecedented scale and speed, religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, the emergence of violent nationalist ideologies and consequent actions, and so on, can be signs of the times that invite us to give a concrete response.

Response to the signs of the times

The analysis of a situation – “socio-analytic mediation” – must be accompanied by what liberation theologians call “hermeneutic mediation,” in which God’s word is interpreted to identify a more liberating existential model. This will be followed by “practical mediation,” which consists in implementing the conclusions drawn in the previous stages.[18]

At this point an important question arises: what influence can the interpretation of a sign of the times, made from a perspective of faith, have in the dimension of public life? In the Bible, the prophets interpreted the signs of the times. What they discerned was communicated to the political authorities, sometimes with great fervor and a sense of urgency. But there was never a particular political authority that submitted itself completely to prophetic interpretations. Today, in the global democratic set-up, the Church remains a public voice, which is sometimes heard and sometimes ignored and even laughed at by the powers-that-be. Whatever responses she receives, however, the Church must continue in her mission of reading and interpreting the signs of the times with the greatest possible commitment and responsibility.


While Christ, the “primordial sign,” constitutes the very condition of the possibility of every divine-human encounter and the essential framework in which to experience and interpret such an encounter, the two “perennial signs” – creation and history – concretely open up the space and time in which the “episodic signs” occur. The disciples are invited to “keep their lamps full of oil and their wicks ready for use” in order to meet the Bridegroom, to catch his voice in both “perennial” and “episodic” signs, and to see the Kingdom unfold in these signs.

DOI:  La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.9 art. 2, 0921: 10.32009/22072446.0921.2

[1].      Cf. Benedict XVI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times – A conversation with Peter Seewald, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2010, part I, 6.

[2].      See ibid., part III, 18.

[3].      A. J. Heschel, The Prophets, New York – Evanston, Harper & Row, 1962, 260.

[4].      Ibid. 271f.

[5].      Cf. A. B. Irvine, “Liberation Theology in Late Modernity: An Argument for a Symbolic Approach,” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78 (2010) 933.

[6].      Cf. D. J. Neville, “Christian Scripture and Public Theology: Ruminations on their Ambiguous Relationship”, in International Journal of Public Theology 7 (2013/1) 17.

[7].      Cf. J. Verstraeten, “Towards Interpreting Signs of the Times, Conversation with the World and Inclusion of the Poor: Three Challenges for Catholic Social Teaching”, ibid., 5 (2011) 318.

[8].      Cf. M. J. Minella, “Praxis and the Question of Revelation”, in Iliff Review 36 (1979/3) 18.

[9].      W. Huber, “The Barmen Declaration and the Kairos Document: On the Relationship between Confession and Politics”, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 75 (1991) 55.

[10].    Cf. L. N. Rivera-Pagán, “Completing the afflictions of Christ: Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero”, in Apuntes 28 (2008/2) 67.

[11].    Cf. F. Nwaigbo, “Instrumentum Laboris: The Holy Spirit and the Signs of the Times for the Second Synod for Africa”, in African Ecclesial Review, vols. 51/4 and 52/1, 2009-2010, 604.

[12].    K. Rahner, “The Death of Jesus and the Closing of Revelation,” Theology Digest 23 (1975), 328.

[13].    Cf. J. Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth, New York, Orbis Books, 1993, 255.

[14].    Cf. E. Huenemann, “Signs of the Times: A Theological Reading”, in Church & Society 75 (1985) 16.

[15].    J. Moltmann, “Sighs, Signs, and Significance: Natural Science and a Hermeneutics of Nature”, in Wesleyan Theological Journal 44 (2009) 20f.

[16].    Cf. L. Johnston, “The ‘Signs of the Times’ and their Readers in Wartime and in Peace”, in Journal of Moral Theology 2 (2013) 38f.

[17].    D. G. Groody, “Jesus and the Undocumented Immigrant: A Spiritual Geography of a Crucified People”, in Theological Studies 70 (2009) 316.

[18].    Cf. C. Boff, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations, New York, Orbis Books, 1987.