Throughout the month of October, a flood of anxiety, anger, confusion, and even despair has washed over faithful Catholics. Reports from Rome regarding the Synod have been a virtual roller-coaster. First came reports that the Synod could vote to give Communion to divorced and re-married Catholics, but then rumors arose that the Kasper proposal was being abandoned. There has been a great deal of discussion on homosexuality at the Synod. Pope Francis announced a new dicastery for the family, and the pope also called for the decentralization of the Church.
In the meantime, the Catholic faithful are seeing echoes of Our Lady’s prophecy at Akita about “cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops,” due in part to the underhanded attempts by some prelates to rig the Synod. In the midst of it all, the most common phrase repeated by faithful Catholics is Our Lord’s promise that “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against [the Church].”
Matthew 16:18 is a most appropriate verse to contemplate at this present time of confusion, as it seems to apply on so many levels. Jesus said in this verse, “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.” The common understanding that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church is that the Church will not teach error or be destroyed. But could there possibly be another, equally valid interpretation? It seems more appropriate to refer to the founding of Christ’s Church on a rock to mean that the Church is permanent and without error. So, perhaps the part referring to the gates of Hell could have another meaning.
Let’s examine this verse in three parts
- I say to thee: That Thou art Peter (rock)
- upon this rock I will build my Church
- the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it
The first part of Our Lord’s statement is the renaming of Simon to Peter. Our Lord called Peter a rock, as in an unchangeable object; a foundation. Just as God carved the 10 Commandments into stone, indicating that these laws were permanent and unchanging, when Our Blessed Lord called Simon a “rock” (Petrus), He is likewise indicating that the formal teaching given by Peter is permanent and unchanging.
The second part of this statement is the foundation of the Church on the inerrant permanence of Peter’s teaching authority. When Our Lord founded His Church on the rock called Peter, He was referring back to His parable about two different houses, one built on a rock foundation, and another built on a foundation of sand. In that parable, Our Lord said:
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)
It is through this parable, combined with Our Lord founding His Church on the rock called Peter, that Our Lord is declaring that the Church will never fall. In short, Peter is a rock whose formal teaching will never be in error. The Church is built upon this rock, and so no matter how bad things are in the world, the house will not fall.
The third part of Matthew 16:18, however, is most curious. Our Lord said, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The Greek word for “gates” here is pulai, which some of the Church Fathers have taken to mean authority or power. So, in a sense, “the gates of Hell” refers to the power or authority of the demonic kingdom in its pursuit to destroy the Church. Understood in this way, it makes sense to say that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church,” as meaning, “the powers of Hell will not prevail.” And while we should understand this passage in this manner, suppose there is a literal meaning here for us as well. On the face of it, Our Lord’s statement implies a defensive position, as in, “the powers of Hell will not prevail against the Church.” But taken literally, the statement is not one of defense but offense, and for one simple reason … gates are not offensive weapons.
Let’s examine two stories from the Old Testament to see if we can catch a glimpse of what Our Lord meant. The first is from the book of Judges:
Once Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and visited her.
The people of Gaza were told, “Samson has come here,” and they surrounded him with an ambush at the city gate all night long. And all the night they waited, saying, “At morning light we will kill him.” Samson lay there until midnight. Then he rose at midnight, seized the doors of the city gate and the two gateposts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He hoisted them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the ridge opposite Hebron. (Judges 16:1-3)
In the Old Testament, Samson is what is referred to as a “type.” A type is a person, place or an event in the Old Testament that foreshadows a person, place or an event in the New Testament. Samson is a type for both our Blessed Lord and the Church. In this very brief, and seemingly non sequitur anecdote, Samson sleeps at the gates of the enemy, where he is about to be ambushed, and then rips the city gates from their mounts and carries them up a hill. Samson carrying the gates to the top of the hill is an obvious prefigurement of Our Lord carrying His cross up the hill to Calvary, but as a type of the Church, it is interesting that what Samson carries are the gates of an enemy city. Not only was the plot to murder Samson spoiled, but the city gate literally did not prevail against Samson’s strength.
Let’s consider also Joshua’s victory over the city of Jericho. Jericho, in the Old Testament, is well known for its wickedness. It was so wicked, in fact, that upon conquering Jericho, Joshua not only had every human inhabitant slaughtered, but also all of the animals, sparing no one save for the prostitute and her family who helped Joshua’s spies. Furthermore, after razing the entire city, Joshua cursed it saying, “May the Lord’s curse light on the man that restores the city of Jericho and builds it up again. The foundations will cost him his first-born, and the gates of it his youngest son.” In essence, Jericho can be seen as a type for Hell.
In the beginning of the story of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho, we see that, “Already Jericho was bolted and barred against the approach of Israel, so that there was no entering or leaving it.” (Joshua 6:1) The walls of Jericho were highly regarded as impenetrable, and as the scripture indicated, the gates were tightly sealed. Deuteronomy 9:1 suggests that Jericho was “fortified to the heavens.” But Jericho, a city filled with iniquity, fell not by arms, but by faith. Hebrews 11:30 says, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell after being encircled for seven days.”
The walls of Jericho fell because Joshua did as God commanded … through prayer, obedience, and the marching of the Ark of the Covenant around the city, “all at once the walls fell down flat.” (Joshua 6:20). The walls of Jericho could not prevail against Israel. More specifically, the walls fell to the prayers and trumpet blasts of the priests, and the parading around of the Ark. In terms of the New Testament, such a battle would be led by the prayers of priests and bishops who parade around the Ark of the New Covenant, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In short, the statement of Our Lord, “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against [the Church]” is a statement of offense, not defense. And as Our Lady is the Ark of the New Covenant, we are reminded of Her words at Fatima, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
When the Church assaults the strongholds of Hell, Hell has no defense. The gates will be pulled from their hinges and carried off. The walls will collapse. As God said to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, “I will establish a feud between thee and the woman, between thy offspring and hers; she is to crush thy head, while thou dost lie in wait for her heel.” (Genesis 3:15). In short, Hell has no power against the Church and can only await the day She crushes its head. Our Lord’s promise that the “gates of Hell shall not prevail against [the Church],” is not a statement of endurance and fortitude against the assaults of the devil, but a jubilant rallying cry to follow Our Lady in storming the gates of the enemy in conquest!
So, put aside your fear, your anger, your confusion, and your anxieties, pick up your weapon … the Holy Rosary … and rush headlong into battle against the gates of Hell with the words of Juda Maccabeus in mind:
“victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven. With great presumption and lawlessness they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; but we are fighting for our lives and our laws. He will crush them before us; so do not fear them.”
Our Lady of Victory, Pray for us!