Bishop Joseph E. Strickland: Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church …and the Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It!

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St. Peter. The Vatican (photo: Unsplash)

By Bishop Joseph E. Strickland, Bishop Emeritus, Substack, July 1, 2024

“And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliacim the son of Helcias, and I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda.  And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father.  And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father’s house, divers kind of vessels, every little vessel, from the vessels of cups even to every instrument of music.  In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, shall the peg be removed, that was fastened in the sure place: and it shall be broken and shall fall: and that which hung thereon, shall perish, because the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 22:20-25 DRB).

“Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.  Then he commanded his disciples, that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.” (Matthew 16:16-20 DRB).

“And to the angel of the church of Philadelphia, write: These things saith the Holy One and the true one, he that hath the key of David; he that openeth, and no man shutteth; shutteth, and no man openeth.” (Revelation 3:7 DRB).

The Lord does not interject things into the world abruptly and without warning that are necessary for our salvation.  He builds a framework for them to rest upon, and then begins to teach us, step by step, how to enter in and partake of this salvific reality.  And what is required in order to accept this reality is something I have written about in a previous letter – supernatural faith.  Supernatural faith is of the utmost importance because salvific realities are far beyond human understanding and, therefore, supernatural faith is required to accept them.  The “mystery” of the Church is one of these salvific realities which requires supernatural faith to understand and accept, for the Church came from the salvific plan of the Lord and is the “universal sacrament of salvation.”

By calling the Church the “universal sacrament of salvation,” it is not meant that it is the eighth sacrament.  Instead, it is the foundation of all the sacraments, as it is through the Church that the other seven sacraments are received.  Therefore, it is the Church that brings forth Christ’s saving mission in the world.  The Church is both a sign and an instrument that brings forth God’s grace.  As Christ was made flesh as the visible image of God on Earth, so too was the Church brought forth as the visible image of God on Earth, for indeed in His Church, His Bride, He is present among us.

Because this IS a great mystery, and because this does not always align with what others think the structure and function of Christ’s Church should be, does this mean that we should then attempt to take the “mystery” out of the divine structure of the Church so that it might be better understood by men?  Should we attempt to reduce it to that which is in agreement with what those outside the true faith believe?  And should we attempt to make the Church more “synodal” by a fraternal collaboration – in other words, by listening to men and attempting to modify immutable definitions of the Church, the sacraments, and the Papal office according to the various definitions of men?  If we seek to do any of these things in an attempt to take away the “mystery” of the Church then there is danger of finding ourselves in a Church that is no longer Catholic – but is instead an “ape” of Christ’s Church.

Regardless of the apparent attempts of some in the Vatican to redesign the Church to make it more appealing to modern ears, the Catholic Church is still the one and only instrument of Christ’s salvation because she is not merely a charitable organization or a fraternal organization; the Church traces her origin to a divine beginning in which the divine Founder, our Lord Jesus Christ, brought her into being for the salvation of souls, and He continues to guide her to this day. Therefore, any efforts made to replace the divine nature of the Church or to change her into a form more acceptable to the world – even if these attempts come about by the hands of the Holy Father himself – will not succeed because the Church IS divine in nature, and therefore its substance and essence cannot be changed by man.  In the event that men do try to redesign the Church, then as the prophet Isaiah tells us: “saith the Lord of hosts, shall the peg be removed, that was fastened in the sure place: and it shall be broken and shall fall: and that which hung thereon, shall perish, because the Lord hath spoken it.”

This verse is first of all a description of what would be the downfall of Eliacim, also rendered Eliakim.  Eliakim would fall because of his sinfulness.  However, it is also a warning for those who attempt to change the Church into a church of man’s making – for that man-made peg will be removed even though it may sit in the holy place (Rome).  But the Church of divine origin shall never fall, even though it may at some point be relegated to the catacombs for a time.  Jesus Himself tells us: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18 DRB). It is important to understand that Peter was NOT himself given the task of building the Church – that is Jesus’s role – Peter was given the task of governing the Church which was established by Christ.  Because Jesus is the Davidic king, the keys are His to give, and therefore He alone can bestow them as He chooses.

Looking again at the verses from Isaiah, we see the beginning of the foundation for the Papal office as we read about the highest office under the king of Jerusalem – that of the Royal Steward or Prime Minister.  The Royal Steward carried the key of David upon his shoulder, and he was “as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”  This was a foreshadowing of what was to come about in the Church that Christ would build.  We see Christ building upon this foundation in Matthew chapter 16 as He appoints one of His Apostles, Peter, as the Royal Steward, giving him the keys of the kingdom.  Jesus gave the other disciples the power to bind and loose, but it was only to Peter that he gave the keys.

It is more critical in this time than ever before that every faithful Catholic in the world should pause and pray with deep reflection on these words from Matthew chapter 16. These words have been cited for many centuries as the Church pointed to this foundational scriptural reference regarding the papacy and the very nature of the Church herself. The first millennium of Christianity understood these words universally, thus in a truly catholic way, as foundational to the Petrine office and to the hierarchical structure of the Church that Jesus Christ established.  Since the East/West schism early in the second millennium, and in the rise of Protestantism in the 16th Century, belief that Matthew 16:18-19 refers to the Chair of Peter has been an essential criterion for understanding yourself as a Catholic.

However, in these early years of the third millennium AD, an increasingly large number of faithful Catholics across the world find themselves deeply confused, concerned, and at times appalled by the confusing words and actions of the present occupant of the Chair of Peter, and the newly-released study document, “The Bishop of Rome,” only adds to this confusion.  I too share in these grave concerns.  Even as I write the above sentences, I am well aware that many of my fellow Catholics will find these words unsettling and deeply offensive.  As a Catholic baptized in infancy, I agree that simply uttering these words is jarring and troubling to the depths of my soul, but I find that I must speak them.  Love of Jesus Christ who is Truth Incarnate, love of the Church He established, love of the Petrine Office which is traced back to St. Peter himself, and love of Pope Francis all compel me to do so.

I must admit that as a sinner, I fall far short of living this compelling love as I should, but I must strive to do so each and every day – and so must we all.  The greatest way to love another is to share the wondrous truth of our Catholic faith, and when necessary, to call even the Pope back to this truth.  As a removed bishop I find myself in a unique position that calls me and allows me to “speak for the flock” as never before.  Many members of the flock express their fears and concerns to me, and I am compelled to speak for them.  It is true that a number of other bishops refrain from speaking up because they are concerned that they too might be removed.  It is also true that some bishops do not speak up because they are in agreement with those who seek fundamental changes to the Church, including a reinterpretation of Matthew 16:18-19, and they are urging Pope Francis forward in changing what cannot be changed.

At this same time, we also see an attempt from the Vatican to separate the Church from its traditional past.  The Mass which uses the 1962 Roman Missal is known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite or the Tridentine or Traditional Latin Mass.  It is the Mass that has been used for centuries, and it is this mass that was codified after the Council of Trent in the 16th Century. However, after Vatican II a different form of the Mass was created and released which authorized the use of the vernacular (or locally spoken) language over Latin, and many of the prayers were changed or eliminated.  Additionally, many other changes took place which moved the Church away from this Mass of the Ages.  Although not specifically directed by the Council, following Vatican II, communion in the hand became commonplace and priests began facing the people rather than facing the altar as had been the custom of the Church for well over a millennium. However, despite these numerous changes, the Traditional Latin Mass was at least still permitted.

Various popes have tried to protect this ancient form of the Mass.  On July 19, 1570, Pope St. Pius V issued this decree: “By this our decree, to be valid IN PERPETUITY, we determine and order that NEVER shall anything be added to, omitted from, or changed in this Missal … At no time in the future can a priest, whether secular or order priest, ever be forced to use any other way of saying Mass.”  However, after 1970, the pre-conciliar 1962 Missal was discouraged and in fact banned in many places.  There was some confusion at the time about whether this would completely suppress the “Tridentine” Missal.  However, in his motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” Pope Benedict XVI stated: “this Missal {1962} was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.“  However, now with Pope Francis’s motu proprio, “Traditionis custodes,” he has embarked on a journey to suppress what other popes have sought to guard, and what Pope St. Pius V said shall be valid in perpetuity.  This is deeply concerning.

priest holding whole wheat

Acknowledging these deep fissures brings me back to this text from the Gospel of Matthew and necessitates a closer examination.  Jesus Christ, Truth incarnate, says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”  Clearly, Peter is the rock, “the foundation” of the Church which Christ intends to build, but it is also clear that it is Christ’s Church.  Peter serves the Church while Christ retains full possession.  Christ then underscores His ownership of the Church by emphasizing that the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  Christ confirms that He is the power that vanquishes the power of hell, and that He will later send His Holy Spirit as reinforcement to His people and His Church.  Nothing is said about a collaboration of men to reimagine a synodal structure for His Church.

In Matthew 16:19, Christ grants the keys and the power of binding and loosing.  The image of keys evokes the idea of locking in and locking out.  Both are important to the Petrine Office – the Truth which Christ has revealed must be locked securely in the Deposit of Faith.  In addition, any false teachings must be locked out of the Deposit of Faith.  The keys serve both to secure and protect the precious truth of the Gospel.  Finally, only the most precious valuables were under lock and key in the time of Christ; this further emphasizes the profound power and the solemn importance of the papacy.

In light of the constant and unchanging truth upheld by the Church in these verses of Sacred Scripture, it is reasonable to express profound concern regarding Pope Francis’s words and actions during his pontificate.  I believe it is a disservice to the Petrine office and to Pope Francis himself to simply say, “He’s the Pope; we must obey.” (Cf. Galatians 2:11-14).  This becomes even more important when we acknowledge that Pope Francis’s words and actions often leave us confused and deeply troubled.  I find it to be especially disconcerting that this Pontificate apparently seeks to diminish papal authority and a centralized structure in favor of a more synodal way, while at the same time acting autocratically and wielding papal power with great force, as evidenced by the suppression of faithful traditional communities and the Traditional Latin Mass.

I am sure some will accuse me of attacking the Pope, but I can assure you that is not my intention in the least.  As a successor of the Apostles, I have the utmost respect for the Church and every one of its divinely-instituted elements, which includes the Papacy.  However, now more than ever we need a Supreme Pontiff who is a great bridge builder.  What better way to express our hope in these desperate times than to speak honestly to the Holy Father and ask him to guard Christ’s Church.

In 1947, Archbishop Fulton Sheen saw the Church in the future dividing into two groups – “the God Who became man, and the man who makes himself God; brothers in Christ and comrades in anti-Christ.”  Bishop Sheen saw the anti-Christ setting up a Church “which will be the ape of the Church because, he the devil, is the ape of God.  It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content.  It will be a mystical body of the anti-Christ that will in all externals resemble the mystical body of Christ.”

Sheen said that “in the midst of all his seeming love for humanity and his glib talk of freedom and equality,” the anti-Christ “will have one great secret which he will tell to no one; he will not believe in God.  Because his religion will be brotherhood without the fatherhood of God…”  With this caution in mind, we must remain ever-vigilant in defending the Church from any who would seek to change or corrupt the divinely-instituted elements of Christ’s Church.

Be of courage, my brothers and sisters – Christus Vincit!  However, the Church is now facing extremely hard times.  Seek always to pray, to remain in a state of grace, to grow in your supernatural faith, and to remember that “from now on, the struggle will be … for the souls of men.”

Archbishop Sheen predicted that people would accept this ape of the Church and its promise to unite people in a world brotherhood.  And he said, “Only those who live by faith really know what is happening in the world.  The great masses without faith are unconscious of the destructive processes going on.”

It is important for all of us to wake up and look around – for this time is even now upon us. It is at our door.

May Almighty God bless you, and may the Blessed Virgin Mary intercede for you and point you always to the Sacred Heart of her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bishop Joseph E. Strickland
Bishop Emeritus

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