Gate Crashing by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.
“How many divisions has the pope?” Joseph Stalin famously sneered. He thought little of the Church’s power to curtail or end his brutality. When he heard of this cynical question, Pius XI allegedly replied, “Tell my son Joseph that he will find my divisions in eternity.” Of course, Uncle Joe could also have found the answer in the Gospels: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18) The pope does not need divisions when he has the promise of Jesus Christ.
We typically understand these words of Our Lord as a description and promise of the Church’s indefectibility. That is, that the Church of Christ will endure to the end of the world. Our Lord guarantees that the array of enemies against the Church will not – cannot – ultimately triumph over her. Not even Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Church may be assaulted from within and from without. Her members may fail. She may be emptied of glory, stripped of dignity, reduced in size. She may even be absent in some places of the world. But in the end the Church will endure.
The doctrine of indefectibility is consoling, especially as we see so many attacks on the Church today. It means that we can trust in the Church, her doctrine and sacraments. But indefectibility is a negative. It describes only what the Church is not, what cannot happen. While retaining this meaning, Our Lord’s words also point us to another truth: the Church’s power over evil in all its hideous forms.
Indeed, such seems to be the primary meaning of the verse. Our Lord promises, “The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” These words indicate not a defensive but an offensive posture. After all, gates do not attack; they defend. The gates, then, cannot hold out in their defense. It is not primarily that the powers of evil cannot overcome the Church. It is, rather, that the powers of evil – the gates of the netherworld – cannot resist the Church’s power to crash them. Yes, the Church has the power to withstand the assaults of evil. But she also possesses the power to subdue, vanquish and conquer, Evil cannot ultimately defend itself against the Church.
We find this power in the teaching authority of the Church. By her proclamation of Jesus Christ, of doctrinal and moral truth, the Church empties the evil one’s lies of power and frees people from error. In the end, Stalin’s Soviet Union fell not by military might but by the moral witness of truth.
We find this power also in the sacraments of the Church. If we watch with the eyes of faith, we see that in baptism, in that simple pouring of water and speaking of words – the Church destroys the bondage of sin and makes someone a free child of God. In confession, when the priest raises his hand in blessing and speaks the words of absolution, he crashes the gates of the netherworld – the slavery of sin and vice – and frees the penitent from the power of evil. No sin can hold a soul prisoner when the power of the Church comes against it.
Whenever members of the Church pray that someone be delivered from the grip of the devil, then again the Church’s power over evil is made manifest. In the most extreme cases the Church has the ritual of exorcism to crash the gates enslaving a person and lead him to spiritual freedom.
We, for our part, must place our confidence in this promise. It’s no fun to play defense all the time. And we are not meant to. The Lord has established His Church to crash the gates of the netherworld, to free souls from ignorance and error, from moral and spiritual slavery. He wants us to be on the offensive – always seeking to vanquish evil, first in our own lives, and then by prayer and witness in the lives of others as well. He has already promised us victory. We need only fight the battle.
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