(Crisis Magazine) — I remember the evening my childhood died. It was cold and just before Christmas; the lights were strung up on storefronts. Far across the parking lot, I could hear the ding-dings from a Salvation Army bell in front of the K-Mart. A pay phone rang, and I reached for the receiver. Thereafter, the lights all around began to bleed.
My father used to take our growing family to Pappy’s Pizzeria for its two-for-one Tuesday-night pizza special. Pappy’s had a piano that played by itself and a large glass window that kids pressed their faces up against to admire the pizza-tossers.
Thirty steps away from Pappy’s was Foos Fun, a small arcade that offered a dozen or so pinball machines and an air hockey machine. It was tradition for my siblings and me to spend a few minutes at the arcade before the pizzas were ready.
A pay phone was situated between the two establishments. Strangely, on this December night, it was ringing. As a curious eight-year-old boy, I must have thought, “Why would a pay phone ring?” I reached for the receiver.
I stood by myself in the cold when a man’s voice on the other line verbally raped me – not that I knew what that meant. He used words, terms, and descriptors I didn’t understand, but he was quick to teach me for the next several minutes. The voice started our one-way conversation by telling me he was looking directly at me, and that I was a beautiful boy.
The pizzas were on the table, but I was still on the phone. One of my siblings came out to tell me the pizzas were ready. I forced myself to meekly put the phone back on the receiver. In from the cold, I told no one what happened, and sat in Pappy’s wooden booth like a boy in a graveyard at midnight. Nothing was ever the same.
Many years later, when the greatest crisis of the Church hierarchy in Catholic American history became known in the summer of 2018 – Theodore McCarrick’s depravity, the cover-ups detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, a deluge of reports of an immense homosexual Catholic clergy culture, and of serial predation at seminaries in Chile, Honduras, and Argentina – I felt the part of the boy I once was at the payphone. That voice spoke again. Everything became blurry, and nothing would ever be the same. I would never regard the Catholic Church in the same way.
I grew up in a large family that was taught to practice, love, and stay close to the sacraments and the faith. Mom and Dad led my siblings in the Rosary and drove us to the sacrament of reconciliation each month. We were instructed by a faithful order of nuns at St. Pius X parish in Bowie, Maryland, and shared meals with priests around our dining room table. Love for God, Christ in the Eucharist, and His Church was part of the air I breathed.
As the veil of secret clergy sin lifted, and a seemingly endless red tide of revelations, cover-ups, and disorderliness poured into the consciences of Catholic laity that summer of 2018, Church leaders remained, startlingly, mostly silent.
Unlike that winter night of lost innocence, this time I stood at the payphone with millions of other conscience-scarred Catholic laity, who gripped the receiver beside me, listening.
But the line just crackled.
So many knew about McCarrick’s immoral carnality. So, so many knew.
As the sweltering months pushed out, and my emotions from the summer of shame abated, it occurred to me that the autumn months provided the perfect opportunity for remorseful bishops to admit their shame, abdication of their paternal shepherding, and remorse for their lack of courage and transparency. I imagined then that a genuine movement by bishops toward a sackcloth-and-ashes acknowledgment of its failures would have garnered mercy.
It seemed rather simple: Catholic laity sought a gesture of reflective humility. I remember thinking what the might of a bishop-purchased full-page ad of remorse to their agonized laity in the National Catholic Register (whether or not they knew of McCarrick’s bedding of seminarians, etc.) would have done to begin the work of reparation. Perhaps in the ad, bishops could have collectively pledged to commit the remainder of 2018 and all of 2019 to penitential acts and to a daily Holy Hour, where they would beg God’s mercy for the shame and landslide of scandal they’d allowed into the Church.
It never happened, though.
Then one morning in Baltimore, on November 13, 2018 – 146 days after the Washington Post broke the story of McCarrick’s depravity – an unknown bishop from a tiny diocese rose from his chair beneath a sky heavy with clouds. Joseph Strickland, a slender, soft-spoken man from a mostly-Protestant diocese, shared a few questions he’d been asked by members of his Tyler, Texas flock. He spoke for four minutes and sixteen seconds, beginning his comments humbly and kindly, like the teenage boy who speaks for the first time to the parents of the girl he’d like to ask out on a date. Then, softly, he revealed his heart.
“The whole McCarrick reality,” he said, shrugging his shoulders in a manner that revealed awkwardness. “How did that happen if we really believe that what was going on was wrong? And I think that that is a core issue that is sort of out there in the air. We’ve heard something about the whole question of homosexuality… It’s part of our deposit of faith that we believe homosexual activity is immoral.”
Continuing, the bishop said:
The question with the McCarrick situation is – how did he get promoted, how did all that happen if we really are all of one mind that [the act of homosexuality] is wrong and sinful? There seems to be questions about that, and I think we have to face that directly. Do we believe the doctrine of the Church or not? There’s a priest [Fr. James Martin] who travels around now, basically saying that he doesn’t – and he seems to be very well promoted in various places.
Brothers, I think part of the fraternal correction… is to ask, ‘Can [tolerance for homosexual acts] be presented in our diocese – that same-sex ‘marriage’ is just fine and the Church will one day grow to understand that. That’s not what we teach.
When he sat back down, nothing would ever again be the same.
Why was this so? Because a number of high-powered cardinals and bishops in the large banquet hall had kept silent about McCarrick for years. And many of those same men had just been told by the uncelebrated, small-town bishop that inviting Father James Martin into their diocese was opening the door to scandal. Many of the bishops in the room that day had already warmly invited Martin in, helping him to become one of the most well-known priests in the world.
It took some time, but Bishop Stickland received his punishment. On November 11, Pope Francis removed him as the Bishop of Tyler after he declined to resign from office. His removal comes after being subject to a Vatican investigation in June. The Vatican has not divulged what had prompted the investigation, or his removal.
The pay phone rang again that Saturday morning. It rang for millions of deliberate Catholic laity throughout the world. Did you pick it up?
If you did, hang up now. It’s Satan on the other line.
Seven or eight dozen texts, emails, and links to podcasts and articles on Strickland’s removal came my way before noon on Saturday. The pay phone rang all day and night. But unlike the innocent eight-year-old boy I used to be, I didn’t reach for the receiver. Satan, I knew, of course, resided behind each click. I am finally learning ways to tame my Irish zeal, finally beginning to understand things precisely as they are – and part of that is my growing sense that Satan seems to have become an ever-expanding leviathan.
You will have heard it said that the Church is now undergoing a crucifixion. It’s not. The smoke trails from the blown-out candles in the Upper Room hang in the air still. We’ve only just begun walking to Gethsemane. We have not sweat blood. We’ve not been whipped, worn thorns, or shouldered our share of the cross. We’ve not felt the spikes enter our wrists or the small bones of our feet.
The Church will not be well for a long, long time. Faithful Catholics – those who adore the Eucharistic Face of Christ, mortify their body and senses, fall onto their knees at daybreak, remain faithfully devoted to Our Lady, and serve the poor as if they were Jesus the Poor Man of Nazareth – feel the poisonous mist that covers the Earth now. But the full effect of this WWI-like chlorine gas is still many mountains and hidden valleys away. Crucifixion is coming, though.
Don’t take Satan’s bait now. Hang up the receiver.
Bishop Strickland begs you to hang it up. He wouldn’t dare say it, but he’d like you to consider mimicking the path he took the past six or so years as he watched his Mother get repeatedly punched in the face by Her own children. When he watched Holy Mother Church thrown to the ground and plundered by Her own kin, he just fell to his knees in front of the tabernacle and increased his time in front of the monstrance. He mortified his body and began to eat more sparingly. He vowed interiorly to Our Lady that he would do his best to become her little spilled chalice for Tyler, and that he’d even be willing to suffer and lose his life to hold up her Son for the world.
It’s been said that we have the Church we deserve today. This can be interpreted in the sense that we are to blame for the corruption, scandal, and heresy rampant in the Church today, which can seem to excuse the actual villains in this story. I don’t think that’s the case, yet nonetheless I think it is true that in many ways we have the Church we deserve.
Have most of us suffered to help save the Church in the manner Bishop Strickland does? Don’t we all – or at least most of us – share a portion of the guilt in the dark state of our Church? I know that I do. Why? I do not believe I am holy, even though our Lord demands it of me. Just as an example, when you awakened to the news Saturday morning, how many of you thought to begin a Rosary for Bishop Strickland’s state of mind before racing to share the first clever Tweet or to watch that first podcast that condemned the Pope? Did you stake your claim against that ridiculous thread of the left-of-center theological dilettante? Did you interiorly cuss that ideological demagogue and Strickland-hater?
This is not to say that we should not speak out against injustice in our Church or to suggest that corrupt hierarchs should not be called to account. But our first, and primary, response must always begin interiorly, with a turning to the Lord in prayer and sacrifice.
If we’re honest, many of us know that we share a part – small or large – for Bishop Strickland losing his head. We didn’t pray and sacrifice for the suffering Church in the manner he did in the years that followed the summer of shame. Knowing he was bound to his duty to become a victim for the Church, he began to intensify what he knew would enable him to become holy and prophetic.
Folks will rightfully say Bishop Strickland spoke frankly about the wages of sin and of what led to this wintertime in the Church. Although his detractors still drone on and on about his sharp elbows and bold voice, Bishop Strickland knew what he said didn’t matter so much. It was only his accepted holocaust of the full burden of his identity that mattered. He knew his intensified prayers, fasts, Rosaries, and mortifications would act to hold him up as he proclaimed the furnace of Truth when so many hated to hear it. He knew his devotedness to the sacred heirlooms of the saints would act similarly to Aaron and Hur as they held up the arms of Moses in the midst of a war.
Perhaps 100 years from now, the name Strickland will have attached to it “removed as bishop from Tyler, Texas for administrative failures.”
But I know him to be a good man, as good as any out there – a bishop who lived in a simple one-story adobe and spent countless hundreds of hours there in front of a small monstrance. He did the small things that seemed big to the Texans who loved him. He held high a large monstrance at Tyler’s busiest intersections during the heart of COVID. He weekly joined to lead the Rosary at a women’s Rosary group. Really, he did what he signed up to do, like a small-town sheriff willing to trot into the Texas village overtaken by outlaws – even when no one else would do it.
Bishop Strickland now has no home. Happily, though, he knows that what appears “losing’ in this world is actually the Lord’s way of “winning.” Those who engage in the necessary and relentless work of shouldering Christ’s cross are those closest to the agonized face of Ecce Homo. Bishop Strickland’s home now, in a real way, are the forlorn places in the landscapes of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. It is at those brokenhearted stations, though, where his might and power will grow. Why? Because he’s huddled so closely to the broken-bodied Christ, who also had nowhere to lay His head. In these dry and blood-stained places, he will console his bullied King with many prayers for His shrinking Church, through his sacrifices, and by his poured-out love. These five places will be his home for the remainder of his days.
Perhaps the next time you find yourself wanting to throw a verbal bomb at the Pope, consider Bishop Strickland’s home today, and leave the receiver from the pay phone on the hook. Satan is baiting you – and me – into something purposeless, something that could one day – if not handled properly – damn your and my soul to Hell. The Evil One has already won so many of us in these culturally hideous days; he’s divided us; he’s split our hearts in two.
If we love Bishop Strickland, it’s fair to consider what he told LifeSiteNews editor-in-chief John-Henry Westen after his removal on Saturday. “Pray for Pope Francis.”
Finally, Bishop Strickland might remind you today that his martyrdom was just one of the many to come. The wintertime is just beginning. The time is ripe now for one thing: to set our gaze firmly on Christ alone, and take more seriously our prayer life, to increase our fasts, and to present ourselves repeatedly to Our Lady with small acts of love and meeting her Son in the Rosary.
We must grow in courage now, where we feel comfortable proclaiming Christ and the fullness of the truth in the public square, at work, and on the sidelines of our kids’ and grandkids’ games. Only this way gives us a heartbeat’s chance to turn back what seems to be a collapsing Catholic Church.
These were the activities of Bishop Strickland in Texas. This man was just a bishop who wanted to be good for his people in Tyler – so he obliged his shepherding mandate and died for them. This is the way it’s always been. He was just another in a long line who decided to die as an alter Christi.
Don’t we all want to die the hero, like he did?
Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.