In the Year of St. Paul, Pope Benedict XVI has asked us to reflect on the biblical writings and personal witness of this great pioneer apostolic missionary. One particular Pauline passage of Scripture has occupied my attention lately. In the Second Letter to Timothy, we find the following strong warning:

"But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people" (3:1-5, RSV). 

More than once in the past 2,000 years these verses have been cited as a sign that we live in "the last days." Such a speculation is especially understandable now: After all, which of these ominous signs aren't descriptive of most cultures today?

This is one reason why the Church has clearly taught, since the day of Pentecost, that we're truly living in the "last days" (see Acts 2:15-21). As St. Paul emphasizes, then, we must always be ready for Our Lord's return!

One particular "sign" on this list has strongly impressed me in recent days: "holding the form of religion but denying the power of it."

Not long ago, when my wife and I were on vacation in Norway, we took a bus tour of the city of Bergen. Along our route, we passed several stone churches that were more than 800 years old. The guide described each church without emotion as "originally Catholic, but now, of course, Lutheran."

As I listened, I remembered that this was the same matter-of-fact description I'd heard given for the "once-Catholic-but-now-Anglican" churches in England, the "once-Catholic-but-now-Lutheran" churches in Sweden, Germany and Austria, and the "once-Catholic-but-now-Reformed" churches in Holland.

I realized that this description mirrored my own way of thinking back when I was receiving former Catholics into the Protestant congregations I once served as pastor. Though they had been Catholic, I concluded, they were now becoming Presbyterian.

In all these cases, what had changed? As I listened to the tour guide and reflected on my own experience, it struck me that we had thought of this transition simply as a change of beliefs, from one set of facts, doctrines and practices -- that is, a form -- to another. But as I considered what had actually changed in these circumstances, I came to realize afresh that the change had involved not a mere change of form, but a denial and rejection of the supernatural sacramental power of the Catholic faith.

When a group of Christians -- or an individual -- jettisons the connection to the Catholic Church to become part of a Protestant denomination, not only Catholic beliefs are given up, but also sacramental life and power, especially the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The denomination may retain a practice of valid baptism, but otherwise it has lost valid sacraments.

As I walked through dozens of former Catholic churches, these words of St. Paul began ringing in my ears, especially with his warning to "avoid such people." To modern ears, that may sound like an unloving attitude, contrary to the ecumenical spirit. But is it possible that the apostle was wisely warning us, in these "last days," that unless we're careful, such denial of the power of religion can be contagious?

Is it any wonder that so many Catholics today who are poorly catechized no longer believe in the powerful sacramental realities of Catholic life? That they see the differences among the thousands of Christian traditions as mere differences of opinion?

If so, how can Catholics recover the power of the sacraments in these "last days"? For a start, in this year of St. Paul we need to reread his letters. We must listen to what he says -- perhaps for the first time -- humbly and in the light of our Catholic faith, with gratitude for the strong, inspired words of this man who gave his life so that we might have a faith not merely in words but in power.