21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; August 23, 2020
Readings: Is 22:19-23; Ps 138:1-3,6,8; Rm 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.

The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, built upon the rock of Peter, who professes his faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. St. John, who after the day of Pentecost stood by St. Peter when the Apostles were put on trial before the Sanhedrin and who always supports and complements St. Peter, wrote: Whoever is begotten of God – that means those who, living in the grace of God, are truly children of God – conquers the world – that is to say, the world that lives beneath the dominion of the devil – and the victory that conquers the world is our faith. Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 Jn 5:4-5) This victorious faith is not a bare bones, merely verbal, dead faith, but a faith enlivened by charity, a faith that keeps the commandments of God. (cf. 1 Jn 5:1-3; Gal 5:6)

The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church and the Church, according to the ancient teaching of the faith is necessary for salvation. St. Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd century appears to have been the first clearly to enunciate the doctrine that is evident throughout the New Testament: “There is no salvation outside the Church”. (Epistle 73,21, cf. CCC 846) He stated the same thing in another way in his famous treatise on the unity of the Church: “He cannot have God as a father who does not have the Church as a mother. If whoever was outside the ark of Noe was able to escape, he too who is outside the Church escapes.” (De Unitatis 6)

The doctrine does not mean that those who belong visibly to the Church – like certain well-known politicians – but who deny the faith of the Church or do not share the life of the Church, which is the life of grace and charity – will be saved. Actually, their damnation will be more severe because to whom much is entrusted, much will be required. (Lk 12:48)

The Catechism affirms the doctrine in a positive fashion saying: “All salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body … the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.” (CCC 846).

Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council made clear the ‘limit’ that was implicit in the ancient doctrine: “They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (Lumen Gentium 14, cited CCC 846)

Those who without any fault of their own do not enter the Church because they do not know what God has ordained in this regard could still, by the help of God’s grace, attain salvation. Still, it would be a mistake to think that in such a case salvation is easy or probable. It is about as likely as Samson killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (cf. Judges 15:14-15) Those who are saved in this fashion are not saved by their ignorance, but in the measure that they actually do share the faith of the Church and live the life of grace. (Cf. LG 16, cited CCC 847)

In the Creed we profess that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”; these are known as the ‘four marks of the Church’ by which her truth and authenticity can be recognized in the midst of a sinful and divided world.

Unfortunately, the visibility of those marks has been obscured in our own time by the heresy of modernism, about which I have spoken, and which has now penetrated to the highest levels of the Church.

The modernist heresy is the penetration of the modern spirit into the life of the Catholic Church. In general, apart from any religion, the ‘spirit of the modern world’, beginning perhaps in the 18th century, is that mankind has come to maturity, has learned that God either does not exist, or is irrelevant to daily life, that religion is a relic from our superstitious childhood, rather like Santa Claus, that now, like adults, we are capable of thinking and deciding everything for ourselves. Now we believe in ‘science’ and when ‘science’ does not fulfill our needs we turn to all manner of new superstitions that please our fancy. The modernist Catholic does not leave the Church, but instead wants the Church to catch up to modern times, be ruled by ‘science’, bless the new superstitions, place itself at the service of the projects of the modern world, and throw out all those antiquated rituals, beliefs, and moral requirements – or at least leave them as nothing more than a cafeteria menu.

Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in the fulness of time. (Gal 4:4) This is supremely offensive to the modern world, because the modern world says that ‘now’ is the fulness of time.

I would dare say that the influence of modernism is the reason the Church, in so many places, has been so weak in the face of the pandemic; the weakness of the Church was revealed when Mass was shut down overnight throughout almost the entire world. It can even appear at times that modernism has proven our Lord wrong, that it has prevailed or is at least about to prevail.

Well, our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail; he did not promise that hell would not fight against the Church, quite the contrary, nor that hell might not nearly prevail. If the Assyrian Empire, which was mighty at the time of the prophet Isaiah, nearly overcame the Kingdom of Judah and was only turned back, sparing a besieged and powerless Jerusalem, by a miraculous divine intervention, the like can happen in the life of the Church.

As I said, the four marks of the Church, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, are the visible signs of the truth of the Catholic Church in the middle of the world, but the prevalence of modernism has obscured those signs. The Church has been compared to the moon. As the moon receives its light from the sun and reflects it upon the earth. So the Church receives her light from Jesus Christ, and reflects it upon the human world. Now, the Church, as the moon, appears to have gone dark.

We can trace through each of the four marks of the Church the darkening effect of modernism.

The Church is one because Jesus Christ is one and because the Holy Spirit who lives in the souls of the faithful through sanctifying grace is one. That, however, is an invisible unity. The Church shows forth her visible unity because she professes one and the same faith throughout the world, shares in the same sacraments that communicate the life of grace, and is governed by one hierarchy under the Pope, the successor of St. Peter, who is the visible principle of the Church’s unity. (cf. CCC 813,815-816)

Modernism brings it about that for two people standing next to each other at Mass, reciting the creed, one might actually believe what he is saying, the other is just reciting an empty, meaningless formula. Worse, priests and bishops might use the language of faith, or some of it, but they have emptied it of its traditional meaning and filled it with a new, ever changing meaning. As a consequence, various Catholic institutions bear the name of ‘Catholic’ but no longer serve the faith that was once for all handed down to the saints. (Jd 1:3) Indeed, they undermine and falsify that faith.

The Church is holy because her head is Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God and she receives her life from him through the Holy Spirit, “the soul of the mystical Body of Christ” (cf. Leo XIII, Divinum Illud, Pius XII Mystici Corporis), and she lives by the life of sanctifying grace, communicated through the sacred signs of the sacraments, which life is made evident in the lives of the saints, above all in the life of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, full of grace.

Now while holiness consists essentially in the life of supernatural charity, which loves God above all things and loves men for love of God, there is one virtue that has a particular connection to holiness, that indeed might be called ‘the guardian of holiness’, that is the virtue of chastity by which a man integrates his sexual instinct into the whole of his person, submitting it to the rule of reason and faith.

Why is chastity so very necessary for holiness? Every voluntary disorder in this matter darkens the mind, gives rise to innumerable falsehoods, lies, and deceptions, enslaves the man to his lowest passions, and keeps him from being subject to the rule of God.

St. Paul writes about this in very strong terms: Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them members of a prostitute? Of course not! … Avoid fornication. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:15,18-20)

One should note that this same teaching applies also to solitary sexual sin which is even more perverse as it takes an action that is meant to connect to another and turns it in upon oneself in a wholly selfish manner.

Every form of unchastity makes it impossible for a person to glorify God in his body as it profanes the holy temple of God.

What does this have to do with modernism? While not everyone who gives way to unchastity is a modernist, modernism has followed the modern world in rejecting the whole teaching of Christ and his Church on marriage and sexuality. On the pages of modernist Catholic writers there are things that are too foul to repeat. This has opened the door for the sexual corruption of the Catholic priesthood, but also of Catholic married couples, through the acceptance of contraception, divorce, and cohabitation before marriage.

Chastity, rather than charity, is the first, immediate, visible sign that someone is following Christ and not the way of the world. Further, without chastity there is no true charity.

In every time and place in history the holiness of the Church has stood out on account of the chastity and purity of her priests, her religious, her married couples, and her young men and women. (cf. Letter to Diognetus) Now, in this matter, Catholics, clergy and laity alike, seem hardly distinguishable from unbelievers.

Side by side with the profanation of the priesthood and of holy matrimony has come the profanation of the sacred liturgy, loss of belief in the sacrificial character of the Mass, loss of belief in mystery of transubstantiation and the consequent real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, widespread liturgical abuses, the general banalization of the liturgy, and the loss of the sense of the sacred. The temple of God no longer appears as a place set apart and consecrated to divine worship through Jesus Christ, the High Priest, but instead has become little more than a glorified meeting hall or auditorium.

When Jesus Christ said, Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect, he was echoing the command of God in the Old Testament, Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy. (Mt 5:48; Lev 19:2)

Without holiness the other ‘marks’ of the Church are empty and meaningless.

The word ‘Catholic’ means universal. The catholicity of the Church has a twofold meaning.

“First, the Church is Catholic because Christ is present in her. ‘Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.’ In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’ which he has willed’ correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia.” (CCC 830)

“Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race … all men are called to belong to this catholic unity of the people of God.” (CCC 831,836)

The Catholic Church presently and historically has consisted of men and women of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 5:9, 7:9), of rich and poor, noble and commoner, learned and uneducated, city dweller and farmer. By being gathered into the unity of the Catholic Church, all are one in Christ Jesus. All share the same life of grace in the Holy Spirit. (cf. Gal 3:28)

Modernism effectively denies the Church’s catholicity be proclaiming the equality of religions; we are all on different paths to the same goal is the modernist doctrine. It is now humanity and the congress of world religions that possesses true catholicity. Hinduism for the Hindus; Buddhism for the Buddhists; Islam for the Muslims; Judaism for the Jews; Protestantism for the Protestants; Catholicism for the Catholics; Voodoo for the practitioners of Voodoo. All are one in their sincere practice of religion. If there is any unity in Christ it is because everyone worships Christ without knowing it. The Catholic Church, however, no longer appears as truly ‘catholic’, but only as one among many.

Nor, for modernism, does the Catholic Church have the fullness of the means of salvation. Rather we must learn to sit at the feet of the other religions, even the idolatry of Pachamama, or ‘mother-earth’, and learn from them. For modernism the Catholic Church is no longer the teacher of all nations, endowed with the authority of Christ, the only Son of God. (cf. Mt 28:18-20) So there is no need for anyone who is not Catholic to become Catholic. It is purely a matter of taste.

As a consequence, missionaries no longer seem committed to proclaiming Christ to those who do not know him or to leading men to the life-giving waters of baptism. Instead, they engage in social work and social activism on behalf of the poor.

Finally, “the Church is apostolic because she is founded upon the Apostles, in three ways: [1] she was and remains built on the ‘foundation of the Apostles,’ the witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself; [2] with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the ‘good deposit’, the salutary words she has heard from the apostles; [3] she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, ‘assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor.’” (CCC 857)

The thing is that modernism denies the perennial validity of the deposit received from the Apostles. For modernism the criterion of judgment is being up to date with the modern world. The modernist church is a new church. There has been a rupture with the past, which has been rejected. A modernist bishop may have been ordained in the apostolic succession, but he no longer hands on the teaching the Apostles received from Christ. The apostolic Church must be a traditional Church, because tradition is our link to the Apostles. Modernism has rejected sacred Tradition. Meanwhile, Sacred Scripture has been subjected to the shifting sands of an infinity of interpretations, suiting the supposed needs of the present time.

The point is that today whenever anyone meets with the Catholic Church, he may meet with the outward forms and appearances of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but he is likely to meet with the reality of the confusion, division, impurity, and profanation, of a modern church that possesses no connection to the apostles and no universality in itself, but can at best serve the new universality of the new world order.

So was our Lord wrong in his promise? Have the gates of hell prevailed?

By no means. Occupying the same visible body of the Church there is still the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. There is still, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the truth of the faith, the life of grace communicated through the sacraments, and the legitimate (even if often weak or unfaithful) hierarchy under the Pope, and there are still the faithful who are receiving this life of grace and being sanctified through the action of the Holy Spirit.

It is not as though the moon of the Church is invisible, passing between the earth and the sun, but rather that the moon is in eclipse, with the earth casting its shadow on the moon. If you have seen a lunar eclipse, you notice that the moon is still there and visible, it has just been obscured by the earth’s shadow. So the light the Church reflects from Christ is still visible, but has been obscured by the shadow of modernism.

There is passage in the Gospels which Jesus is in the boat asleep when a storm arises, water is pouring into the boat. The disciples are terrified; they wake up Jesus who rebukes the wind and waves, brings a great calm, but then rebukes the disciples for their terror and the weakness of their faith. (cf. Mk 4:35-41) Always the boat is the Bark of Peter; it represents the Catholic Church.

There is no salvation outside of the Church. So first rule: do not get out of the boat in middle of the storm, even if the boat is filling up with the waters of modernism.

In the 19th century St. John Bosco had a dream in which he saw the Church not as a single boat, but as a fleet, commanded by the Pope’s flagship. The fleet was being assailed by an enemy fleet, in the midst of a terrible storm. The enemy fleet was focused on trying to sink the flagship with the Pope. There were also two pillars in the sea: on one was a statue of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Help of Christians and on the other, loftier and more solid, was a eucharistic host, beneath which was inscribed, “Salvation of believers”. When the Pope finally succeeded in securing his flagship to the two pillars, the enemy fleet was vanquished, the storm ceased, and the sea grew calm.

St. John Bosco commented on the meaning of the dream, saying: “Very grave trials await the Church. What we have suffered so far [19th century] is almost nothing compared to what is going to happen. The enemies of the Church are symbolized by the ships which strive their utmost to sink the flagship. Only two things can save us in such a grave hour: devotion to Mary and frequent communion. Let us do our best to use these two means and have others use them everywhere.” (https://rosarycoasttocoast.com/the-prophetic-vision-of-st-john-bosco-the-two-columns/)

The gates of hell shall not prevail against her. That is not something we currently see, but they are our Lord’s words, his promise, so we must put our trust in him. This requires an act of faith. In another of his greatest moments, St. Peter said to Jesus – and this was in respect to his teaching on the Eucharist – Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (Jn 6:68)


Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.