1. "But you cannot judge the signs of the times" (Matt 16/3). The times? There is "the time of the weather". But then there is also the time of duration--like number of months or years. There is the time of history.
2. The Bible gives us a sense of time which is historical--there is a beginning and there is an end. This history has passed through many centuries until our time. We now walk through this history as we establish new times. The Bible gives us stories of this history. It is a history of covenants--refusal and renewal of covenants. We can think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the prophets. Each moment in that history was marked by decision making. In the here-and-now of the persons involved decisions had to be made. Think of the big decision to leave Egypt, cross the sea and pass through the desert. For us, Christians, our decision is based on the Passion-Death-Rising of Christ. We decide to stay vigilant and renew our conversion regularly. Each day we "die" to our egoism to "rise again" in a new life. Each day is decisive.
3. Now we look at our social realities. The Social Doctrine of the Church is a way of looking at--"reading"--the actual social conditions. So the Rerum novarum of Pope Leo XIII was born out of its reading of the social conditions of industrial laborers. Years after that new experiences arose. There was the dominance of economics, the ideologies of socialists and communists (and capitalists), the rise of new technologies and the consequent threat to humanity (such as nuclear threats). There came the question of human rights, the question of violence and war, the question of economic development. Pope Paul
VI once noted that the social problems of the world has become truly global.
4. So with the flow of history the Church situates herself as she also addresses new events and new situations. The Vatican II council has thus affirmed that ""the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel" (Gaudium et spes #4).
5. The same document continues to say that "the people of God believes that it is led by the Lord's Spirit, who fills the earth. Motivated by this faith it labors 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 others" (Gaudium et spes #11). So there is an invitation to discern with the Spirit. To read the "signs of the times" we look at our world--at our societies. We look at daily life, for example. We discern what is there--we interpret with the whole Church what is going on.
6. We are invited to see the "signs of the times" of divine reality. What could be the plan of God as history happens to us now? Our faith tells us that the Spirit acts with us in history--God is acting within history.
7. Who discerns the signs of the times? Well, it is the person who is on the path of faith touched deep within conscience and awakened by the Spirit. It is also the whole Church, the communion of persons discerning. It is the whole "people of God".
8. Let us start with the "little ones" of society--the poor, the humble, the marginalized. As Christ himself said, these "little ones" see better than the wise and bright guys. As the Beatitudes show, they are the pure in heart, thirsting for justice. Jesus has placed them in the line of prophets!
9. Of course there are the communities and groups--including religious congregations! They have a voice and they help the whole People of God to discern too. Very often they too are prophetic.
Of course we do not forget the priests and Bishops and the Magisterium. They elaborate concrete documents of what we now call as "social doctrine".
10. Let us include people of goodwill--even those who are not members of the Church. They too have their discernment. There is the human conscience belonging to each and every human person that is touched by what happens in the world we live in. This conscience is led to the good and to constant conversion.
11. Today we also talk of the ecological problem. That too is part of the "signs of the time". What is God calling us all to do? What response is God asking from us?
12. The Church has always tried her best to respond to what she has discerned. Events happening in history has made her respond like demanding development of the total human person in front of very restricted political-economic conditions. The Church has opted for peace in the midst of war and violence.
13. Do we have concrete ways of responding to the signs? Yes. We have values that unite us and keep us fraternal and in communion. We have services that we can do for each other, given the gifts and talents we have. The Scriptures show us the importance of being prophetic. The Psalms show us the wonder of crying and of celebrating. Jesus gave parables to guide us. He showed us the value of healing others, feeding the hungry, caring for the suffering. The Paschal passage of Jesus is a major resource for us.
14. Gaudium et spes tells us to look at our conscience and see what happens there as we face our social realities. Are we stimulated to work for fraternity and communion? Are we triggered to work for human dignity? Are we disturbed by injustices going on around us? The Church herself is called to be sign. When found in the midst of society she too must be a sign--a "sacrament"of the Kingdom. She calls for response to social questions.
15. We might add and say that we can be signs of the Resurrection. In the midst of a very tough social world can we show that death, darkness do not have the dominance over life? We can be of good cheer in a world of sadness. As Jesus said, "I have conquered the world" (Jn16/33).