Drive from North Carolina to California and you will most likely travel on Interstate 40. As helpful as the mile markers are that you pass along the way, the most important signs are the “reassurance markers”: blue shields that every so often tell you that you are heading in the right direction on the right road.
God frequently allows us to see prophetic “reassurance markers” that help His people to see that we are on the right prophetic road, heading steadily towards the Second Coming of Jesus.
Pope Francis’ six-day “Apostolic Journey” to the United States is one such “reassurance marker.”
The pope’s already stratospheric popularity has surged on the back of the constant news coverage afforded him by a breathless media. In-depth, long-form profiles of Pope Francis have been published by virtually every significant news outlet, with one cable company establishing an entire channel dedicated solely to coverage of the papal visit.
Before he had completed his first year as pope, Time Magazine christened him “The People’s Pope”. A journalist in secular Great Britain opined that “even atheists should pray for this pope,” and a prominent U.S. sportswriter stated that “this pope might even convince me to go back to church.” The New York Times reported that Francis has “achieved a unique global stature in a short time.”
While the number of professed Christians in the United States is declining rapidly, America has embraced this conservative religious leader. Broadcasters—who as a group have little positive to say about faith or the Bible—breathlessly congratulated their colleagues on encounters with Francis. The pope was celebrated during his American visit. Francis is huge.
The pope’s brief pontificate has been characterized less by doctrinal teaching and more by compassion. Francis has emphasized social and humanitarian issues while demonstrating humility and kindness. The world applauded when a 53-year-old man suffering a disfiguring condition known as neurofibromatosis traveled to the Vatican and was hugged by Pope Francis. Even his own father wouldn’t touch the man, who later said, “I felt like I was in paradise.” A photograph of Pope Francis kissing the tattooed feet of a young criminal offender in Rome quickly circulated around the world. Such events are the rule of Francis’ reign as pope, not the exception.
Pope Francis has shaken up the Vatican City, defining the Catholic Church’s message as one of mercy and making the Vatican a more open institution.His decision to shun the papal palace in favor of living in a humble apartment combined with his now-famous “Who am I to judge?” quote went a long way toward putting a new face on a church that for years has been mired in scandal. A Jesuit and senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter told National Geographic, “I jokingly say that Harvard Business School could use him to teach rebranding.”
The greatest significance of Francis’ visit to the United States will not be in what he says or does while here. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “The Vatican’s relations with various states turn slowly; church authorities are cognizant of history and do not hurry things.” The greatest significance of this papal visit lies in the fact that it happened at all.
It is important to remember that the man now being celebrated as “the world’s greatest moral leader” is also the planet’s most influential political leader. Rome is both church and state, with political ambitions that cannot be disentangled from its spiritual ideals. The Bible long ago saw the papacy’s rise to global prominence, going so far as to predict a time when “all the world wondered” after the church of Rome (Revelation 13:3).
Pope Francis’ benign disposition does not tell the entire story of his pontificate. The man who asked, “Who am I to judge?” is the leader of a church which for centuries has stood in the place of God on Earth. The church of “The People’s Pope” reserves the right to forgive sin, with Francis even declaring that the church would extend forgiveness to women who had had abortions—for a limited time and at the discretion of its priests.
Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals forgiveness comes via God through Jesus, and not via the church through priests.
Add sacramentalism, celibacy, idolatry, Sunday sacredness, the role of tradition, baptism by sprinkling, the role of Mary, and a whole host of other teachings, and we begin to understand why an entire era of history—the Reformation Era—is named after a movement that stood against the teachings of Rome. Francis is the incredibly popular leader of a church positioning itself as the dominant spiritual and political force in the world.
Ellen White wrote many years ago that the Protestants of the United States “will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power,” and that America will “follow in the steps of Rome in trampling on the rights of conscience” (The Great Controversy, p. 588). She also wrote: “Let the restraints now imposed by secular governments be removed, and Rome be re-instated in her former power, and there would speedily be a revival of her tyranny and persecution” (p. 564).
While some might rather ignore these plain statements, current events suggest they have never been more reliable.
While the world sees a kind man urging humanity to do its best, it is easy to fail to see the forest for the proverbial trees. In spite of his gracious acts and inspirational words, Francis leads a church that has merchandized grace, offered a corrupted version of the plan of salvation and placed tradition above the Bible. His popularity is soaring and shows no sign of slowing down.
We are rapidly heading west toward California from North Carolina. The blue shields say “40 West.” And even though we might not be able to see the mile markers as clearly as we wish, there is no doubting we’re almost there.