Last month the Holy Father blessed a new statue in the Vatican Gardens. It is a figure of St Michael the Archangel doing battle with the devil. His Holiness used this ceremony as an opportunity to entrust the Vatican City State and all of its inhabitants and employees to the Holy Archangel’s protection. “St Michael defends the people of God from his enemies,” explained the Pope, “above all from the enemy par excellence, the devil”. The Holy Father added: “In consecrating Vatican City State to St Michael the Archangel, I ask him to defend us from the evil one and banish him.”
We know from Genesis that when man first sinned it was in response to a temptation from the serpent. This gave Satan an entrée into human society, and if we look at the world today we see that this ancient enemy of God and man is all too active. Since his election our new Pope has reminded us on numerous occasions of the reality and the malice of the devil, and of the evil one’s activity in the world and within the Church.
For the last two millennia Catholics have taken strength and encouragement from Our Lord’s promise: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The spiritual forces of darkness – Satan and his fallen angels – are evidently no match for the Holy Ghost and the Holy Angels.
To be in a state of unrelenting conflict with the powers of evil is normal for the Church. Our Lord warns us that this will be so. Soon after His Crucifixion the Synagogue and then the Roman Empire unleashed their full fury on the early Christian community. More recently the French Revolution wrought desecration on cathedrals and churches, and torture and death on thousands of Catholic religious, clergy and laity. The last century brought persecution under totalitarian socialism in its Nationalist and Communist forms.
A glance around the world today reveals that martyrdom is by no means a thing of the past. Christians are currently being slain on a weekly if not daily basis in the Middle East and parts of Africa. They are murdered for their faith. Worshippers in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and elsewhere risk being blown up by bombs parked outside their churches when they go to Mass on Sundays. The secular media seems reluctant to report this, but charities such as Aid to the Church in Need do their best to monitor this deplorable situation, and news of the atrocities is at least receiving some coverage in Christian news services.
It would be over-egging the pudding to talk at this stage about full-scale persecution in our supposedly freedom-loving western world. Discrimination, however, is a growing reality for Christians everywhere. Catholic employers in America have been preparing to face the consequences of having to break the law when they refuse to implement their government’s healthcare program, which insists on the provision of cover for contraception and abortion. A few years ago Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago – a mild-mannered prelate who is not given to histrionics – said the following: “I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
Recently in France innocent men, women and children were bashed up by the police for joining millions of demonstrators who gathered on the streets in support of the traditional view of marriage and the family. Hundreds were arrested just for wearing T-shirts depicting the outline of a man and a woman with two children. Meanwhile, Jean-Michel Colo, the mayor of a town in the Pyrenees, was told that he faced the prospect of five years in jail and a £65,000 fine for refusing to officiate at a so-called marriage between two men. M. Colo said that he would go to the gallows rather compromise his conscience on the issue.
As the pressure increases we can thank God for that promise of Our Lord that “the gates of Hell will never prevail against His Church.” However desperate things have been in the past, and however much hardship there will be in the future, we have His promise that the Church will survive, that the Faith will be taught, and that the Sacraments will be dispensed – at least somewhere on this planet – until His return in Glory at the end of time.
Very often, however, this promise of Our Lord is misunderstood. Many people interpret the statement that “the gates of hell will not prevail” incorrectly. They take it to mean that the forces of evil will not triumph over the Church. And while that is certainly one of the implications of Our Lord’s words, it is not what He actually says. His promise is that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. There is an important difference here.
In the days of siege warfare, the gates were the most vulnerable point of a city under attack. Breach the gates, and you could take the citadel inside the walls. So rather than telling us that His Church must always be on the defensive, Our Lord is actually instructing us that His Church should actually be on the offensive, storming the gates of hell and taking the forces of evil by siege. A valid rendering of His words in English would be: “the gates of hell will not hold out against [the Church]”.
The Church’s mission is not to huddle together dodging whatever arrows and bombs that are thrown and waiting for Our Lord to come and rescue us. The Church’s mission is to evangelise the world and to Christianise the culture in which we live by preaching the Gospel in season and out of season. Our mission as baptised Christians is to brave the arrows and missiles as we build the Kingdom of Heaven in that part of creation that has been entrusted to our care and influence.
If we lose sight of this pro-active mission of the Church, the consequences can only be regrettable. When those of us who are responsible for teaching the Faith forget that we are supposed to be members of the Church Militant, then the Church as an institution becomes inward-looking and self-serving. Batten down the hatches against the storm that rages outside, and the atmosphere inside eventually becomes fetid and unwholesome. The result can only be that zeal is suffocated and scandals proliferate.
Our Lord established His Church as an hierarchical society, with Peter at the head of the Apostles. As a global institution the Church requires canon lawyers, diplomats and curial officials to serve Her mission of rescuing souls from damnation and saving them for eternal life. However, when bureaucracy, management and diplomacy become ends in themselves and the mission to evangelise is sidelined, then something rotten sets in. And as Pope Benedict XVI once warned us: “The greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the Church.” The most appalling harm that has been inflicted on the Church within our lifetime has not been the result of terrorist bombs and communist jails. It has been the devastating assault on the Church’s credibility from the internal abuse of trust and authority by clerics who have evidently lacked all sense of the sacred, and who seem to have had so little faith in God’s promises that they have even lost the fear of divine punishment for their crimes.
During his consecration of the Vatican and all who sail in her to the patronage of St Michael, the Pope prayed that the Holy Archangel would intercede for Vatican officials to make them strong “in the good fight of faith.” In words which some respected commentators immediately linked to rumours of a forthcoming ‘reform of the Vatican’, the Pope also prayed that, through St Michael’s intercession, those within the Vatican would be made “victorious over the temptations of power, riches and sensuality.”
These days, when the reform of any human institution is the subject of conversation, we expect to hear words like ‘restructuring’ and ‘rationalisation’. The Holy Father’s actions and words in relation to the Vatican so far point to a much profounder and more effective sort of reform – the reform that can only come from interior conversion.
When Our Lord tells us that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church, He is assuring us that we need not be timid in our practice of the Faith. We are called to be bold in our proclamation of the Gospel, and courageous in its defence, so that we take the gates of hell by storm. If the Church in our age is to fulfil Her divine commission, then the spirit of the ‘Church Bureaucratic’ and the ‘Church Diplomatic’ has to be jettisoned. Our identity as the ‘Church Militant’, before which the gates of hell tremble and disintegrate, must be rediscovered.
It should come as no surprise when the devil concentrates his efforts within the Church. Of course he does. His aim, after all, is to deprive us of the life of grace and the Beatific Vision which he himself threw away forever in that disastrous act of rebellion against his Creator. If only he can keep us away from the source of everlasting life which flows from the Cross in the Sacraments and which gives nutrition in the pure milk of Catholic doctrine, then he will have achieved his purpose in our lives. And so it is only to be expected that he focuses a good deal of his destructive energies on seminaries, the priesthood, the Vatican, etc. If the faith, the integrity, and the courage of the clergy are weakened by relativism and worldliness, then the leadership of the Church Militant becomes ineffective and the gates of hell remain secure.
No amount of tampering or tinkering or ‘restructuring’ of the institution will ever defeat the devil. The weapons that he fears are prayer, piety, faithfulness and holiness. And this is where we all have a role to play in union with our Pope and our bishops in that perennially –needed reform of the Church which is based on conversion and personal sanctification. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we each have a contribution to make. If you and I are healthy cells in that Body, if we are full of Faith and Hope and Charity, then the whole organism benefits. Through our prayers, our humility, our purity and our acts of heroic charity, we shall participate in a genuine renewal in the Church’s life, the fruits of which will include conversions and good vocations.
In the Church Militant there are no civilians, and no-one is useless. The toothless old widow who offers up the aches and pains of rheumatism makes an invaluable contribution to the war effort. Each and every Hail Mary of her Rosary is a spiritual cruise missile that sends the demons scrambling for cover.
Difficult times might be on the way. We can be bold, however, in the knowledge that if we have recourse to his protection, Holy Michael the Archangel will defend us in the day of battle.