You will not find any discussion on the rapture in any Catholic catechism. However, you will often find it mentioned by fundamentalist Protestant preachers, by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, and the concept has been popularized in novels and movies as well.
The idea of a rapture is based upon an interpretation of this text of St. Paul’s in his first Letter to the Thessalonians: “…the dead in Christ will rise up first. Then we who live, who survive, shall be caught up together with them in clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall ever be with the Lord” (4:17). The followers of the rapture take this to mean that Christ would come before the end of the world, that is before His Second Coming, and that at that time the righteous would be “raptured,” that is caught up into the air with Christ, while sinners would remain on the earth for a period of great tribulation. It would then be after this that Jesus would come on the earth to rule for a thousand years, after which finally there would be the end of the world and the General Judgment.
The idea of the rapture is consequently closely intertwined with the theory of millenarism, which was embraced by a few isolated ecclesiastical authors, such as Papias, St. Justin and Tertullian, and later rejected by the Church, notably by the Council of Ephesus, but has been adopted by these sects. This theory of millenarism is in turn based upon a literal interpretation of Chapter 20 of the Apocalypse, which speaks of the victory of Christ over Satan, holding him bound for a thousand years (v. 3), during which time the souls of those who refused the mark of the beast “reigned with Christ a thousand years,” “but the rest of the dead did not come to life till the thousand years were finished” (v. 5). In a response dated July 21, 1944, the Holy Office condemned millenarism as an error that “cannot safely be taught” (in Renié, Manuel d’Ecriture Sainte, V, §314), and the same year a work of Fr. Manuel Lacunza was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books on account of the same error.
However, it is interesting to know why these ideas are false and how a false understanding of Sacred Scripture lies behind them. The text of St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is very clear in the context of the preceding verses. It refers to the end of the world, to the second coming and to the general judgment, and for this uses the images already employed by the prophet Daniel to describe the end of the world. Hence the preceding verse: “For the Lord himself with cry of command, with voice of archangel, and with trumpet of God will descend from heaven; and the dead in Christ will rise up first. Then, we who live, who survive…” (I Thess. 4:16). The promise is to be victorious with Christ on the last day, and this is what is consoling, not that we might be snatched away for a period, or even that we might rule with Him on earth for one thousand years. Moreover, we are repeatedly told, but by our Divine Savior and also by His apostles, that we are not to know the day or the hour of His coming, but that He will come when least expected. “But of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Mk. 13:32). Or “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief” (II Pet. 3:10), just to quote a couple of examples. This could hardly be the case if there were to be a rapture.
The interpretation of the Apocalypse to mean a thousand physical years’ reign on this earth is likewise based upon a view of the Sacred Scriptures which fails to take into account the various literary genres. The Apocalypse is a prophetic work, and consequently uses the literary style of prophecy, which is full of imagery, which, although truthful, is not intended to be chronological nor to give an historical account. The thousand years is symbolic of the long period of time that follows the Resurrection, in which Satan is chained in his control of the faithful who are baptized, at least relatively speaking. It is at the end of the long period during which the Church Militant fights against all kinds of persecution that finally the devil will be released, the time of the Antichrist will come, and then rapidly will take place the Last Judgment, as is described in the last verses of Chapter 20 of the Apocalypse (11-15). To interpret these images in a physical manner so as to indicate a thousand years of peace with Christ is to miss the entire point of the passage, which is to show that this time is a preparation for the Last Judgment, a time for us to combat the devil, to crush evil, to persevere in good works, that our names might be “found written in the book of life” (v. 15). A literal, physical interpretation of these images and texts is just as grossly materialistic as were the Pharisees in their desire for a Messias who would rule over a temporal kingdom.
Rather than a millennium of peace and earthly comfort for those who consider themselves to be just, it will be a time of loss of faith, of apostasy, in which the good will have to suffer along with the wicked, which is to precede the General Judgment. This is described by St. Paul: “Let no one deceive you in any way, for the day of the Lord will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (II Thess. 2:3); and by Our Lord Himself: “There will be great earthquakes in various places, and pestilences and famines, and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all these things they will arrest you and persecute you.…By your patience you will win your souls” (Lk. 21:11-19).
Consequently, there is no doubt that the fantasy of a rapture is incompatible with Catholic doctrine and spirituality, as also is the millennialist dream. The struggle of our earthly life, lived for the love of God is the time of preparation for the harvest, and this preparation will continue until the day on which Our Divine Savior comes in glory to render judgment to every man “according to his works, whether good or evil” (II Cor. 5:10):
“He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world; the good seed, the sons of the kingdom; the weeds, the sons of the wicked one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. But the harvest is the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore, just as the weeds are gathered up and burnt with fire, so will if be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send forth his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all scandals and those who work iniquity, and cast them into the furnace of fire, where there will be the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the just will shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt. 33:38-43).
The manner of representing Christ on the Cross has changed over the centuries. During the first centuries of our era, when the horror of crucifixion was still known, Christ was never depicted on the Cross. It would have been too horrifying to depict the full extent of His sufferings as a crucified man when people could still see and recall how brutally cruel this really was. The Cross was depicted alone as the symbol of the Faith, especially after the victory of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge in 312, when he beheld in the heavens, above the sun, a cross of light, around which were the words “In this sign you shall conquer.” It was soon thereafter that the Church ornamented and decorated it with precious jewels.
It was only in the Middle Ages, when crucifixion was no longer known, that crucifixes began to depict Christ dying on the Cross. But even then, they were very stylized, such as the well-known crucifix of St. Francis, and there was no attempt to depict even the due proportions of His body, let alone the depth and extent of the human sufferings of Christ.
Since the Renaissance, various schools have attempted to depict the physical sufferings of Christ much more accurately, including the five principal wounds. However, the aim was to show symbolically the sufferings of the Lamb of God, upon whose shoulders the Lord God laid “the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). It did not pretend to be a literal representation of everything He suffered. In the past century, however, studies on the shroud of Turin, our Divine Savior’s winding sheet, have enabled artists to depict our Divine Savior’s sufferings more accurately. They can, for example, place the nails precisely at the right place, at the wrist, and the feet one over the other. They can include some of the many scourges, with which our Divine Savior’s body was lacerated, as well as the wounds from the crown of thorns and the falls on the Way of the Cross. However, few have been able to capture all the pain and agony of those hours on the Cross, and none (with the shameful exception of Michelangelo) have dared to depict our Divine Savior as He really was, bearing the utter humiliation of being entirely stripped and naked.
If there is certainly a place for depicting more accurately our Divine Savior’s sufferings, it is not the only nor even the principal purpose of the Crucifix. It is to show the instrument on which God-made-man vanquished the devil; it is to show the depth of His love, the grandeur of His humility, the kindness of His Holy Face. It is most importantly a symbol of the heroic virtue and charity by which our Divine Savior purchased us back from our sins. Consequently, it does not have to show all His anguish and sufferings as much as it must clearly indicate His ineffable goodness.
The love of the Cross is an integral and essential part of our Catholic life, as our Divine Savior Himself stated, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Lk. 9:23); and as St. Paul also teaches: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). It is also true that physical suffering is one of the most difficult of crosses to bear without resentment and with love. Theoretically, also, it would be a great act of charity to ask for another’s suffering to be transferred to oneself in order to relieve the other person.
However, there is a huge difference between embracing the sufferings that God, in His goodness, deigns to send us, and actually and positively willing that such sufferings should come upon us. It is the difference between the second and third degrees of humility as described by St. Ignatius in his book of Spiritual Exercises. The second degree of humility is that of indifference, namely the acceptation and embracing of whatever the Good Lord sends us, whether it be sickness or health, poverty or riches etc. “I neither desire nor am I inclined to…” The third degree is entirely heroic, and consists in actually choosing or desiring poverty or suffering or insults rather than the contrary “whenever the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty would be equally served, in order to imitate and be in reality more like Christ, our Lord…” (ibid.).
However, it must be acknowledged that such a desire and such a prayer is the will of God only when it is the fruit of a soul that has attained to perfection. This is what Fr. A. Tanquerey has to say in his treatise entitled The Spiritual Life: “The desire and love of suffering…is the degree proper to perfect souls and especially to apostolic souls, to religious, priests and devout men and women. Such was the disposition that animated Our Blessed Lord when He offered Himself as victim at His entrance into this world.…Out of love for Him and in order to become more like Him, perfect souls enter into the same sentiments” (§1091).
In any other soul, however, such a prayer or desire could be a form of self-deception, and even a temptation of the devil to ultimately produce discouragement. Father Tanquerey continues to ask himself if it is appropriate for a soul to formally ask God for extraordinary sufferings, as in the prayer to take somebody else’s disease upon oneself. Here is his answer: “No doubt some of the Saints have done so and in our day there are still generous souls who are moved to do likewise. However, generally speaking, such requests cannot be prudently counseled. They may easily lead to illusions and are often the outcome of some ill-considered impulse of generosity which has its origin in presumption.…Therefrom issue violent temptations to discouragement and even to complaints against God’s Providence.…Hence we must not take it upon ourselves to ask for extraordinary sufferings or trials….If one feels oneself drawn thereto, one must take counsel with a judicious director of souls and do nothing without his approval” (ibid., §1092).
There lies the answer to the question: one ought only pray such a prayer after having discerned that it is the will of God because one is called to perfection, and one’s spiritual director is in full agreement.