Meet the ‘Red-Pilled’ Shepherd
Bishop Strickland of Tyler, Texas, embraces the truth of the faith.
Bishop Joseph Strickland, 60, of Tyler, Texas, spoke with Register senior editor Matthew Bunson the day Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s April 11 essay was published on the sexual-abuse crisis about the importance of Catholic teaching and being rooted to Christ and the Eucharist — and how he has hope in the prayerful observance of the laity of his flock.
What were some of the standout aspects to the essay, especially as it relates to the sex-abuse crisis?
Well, we could talk for a long time. There were many standout aspects, but certainly the way he began: that, really, the foundation is embracing God, our Creator, and not rejecting that. And he speaks somewhat at length about the perils of a nation or a world that rejects the concept that we come from a loving God. So I think that was key.
As a child — I’m 60 years old — I grew up in the time that he was referencing, talking about 1968 and all of that. I think the sexual revolution, as it’s been called, the points he made about that and how it has served to undermine humanity; I think that the realities about some of the atrocities in seminaries that he alluded to, with being shown pornographic movies in the seminary to supposedly teach you chastity or whatever; so many things that he said just were spot-on with where things went awry.
And, thankfully, he didn’t just leave us there and say, “Isn’t this devastating?” But he reminds us of where we get back on track.
Really, in a very humbling way, it astonished me how it resonates with everything I’m trying to do as a bishop in using the phrase “deposit of faith.” … As I’d said at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore last November, that’s one of our promises: to guard the deposit of faith. And I think that this [essay] is about that in a very significant and very broad sense.
So like I said, I could go on and on, but there were many key elements of this [essay] that I think will need to continue to be unpacked, with what it says to us and how it supports being the Church, not that we create, but the Church that comes from Christ. … [The essay is] about having Christ as our Lord and Savior and living that truth and embracing Christ and knowing he’s a real Person. I said, I could go on and on.
The speaking of the Real Presence, I think that is so spot-on, as well. And it really all resonates with exactly what I feel the Holy Spirit has been rekindling in my heart and in my life, as well, because in many ways, going back to real faith in the Real Presence — that Christ is truly there in consecrated bread and wine — I think that is essential to getting back to the true Church that Christ has established.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict says beautifully, the Church is there, it will be there, in the faithful people that are believing and celebrating the sacraments. But we’ve got to make that side of the reality of the Church much more exposed to the world to re-evangelize the world that we live in.
How are you as a bishop helping those who are struggling with faith right now, not just because of the sexual-abuse crisis, but also because of the wider problems and culture?
I believe — and that’s what I keep promoting in the diocese probably in virtually every homily I give lately and every place that I speak in any way — [we need to be] coming back to faith in Christ’s words. He said, “I will be with you always until the end of time, until the end of the age.” And I think we can take that literally in what Christ was saying: He is with us. I mean here in this chancery building. He’s with us in a tabernacle, in a small chapel, in those places throughout the world. He is with us. And he comes to us anew at every Mass.
I just tweeted this morning that we really need to focus on that as we come to Holy Week: to really focus on what we believe. And, really, I’d have to say that I believe that is the best response to questions about faith or doubting: Turn to Christ. Believe what he said. Believe he’s really present in the Eucharist, and spend some time in prayer before him.
I try to do that myself. I can’t say it’s perfect or my focus is always there as it should be, but spending time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, I think, is a great way. I would really recommend, that would be my prescription for anyone who’s really wavering in their faith: Go to Eucharistic adoration. Just go.
You might’ve said, “Well, I don’t know what to say or I don’t know how that works.” Just go. That would be my, probably the No. 1 recommendation I could give. …
We’re not just before a symbol. We’re not just going through a ritual. We are kneeling and praying and sitting and reading before the presence of the King of the Universe. And, to me, that is the best place to go if your faith is wavering.
How did you first discern your own vocation, and what was your formation like?
I entered the seminary at 18, back in 1977. And, you know, smack in the middle of everything, all of the things that were going on, that the Pope Emeritus Benedict speaks of. I was in the same seminary for eight years. There really were, as I’ve come to know later, there were some controversies and some issues about sexual misbehavior or misconduct. I did hear about, especially in later years in the seminary, some of those issues, not so much in the seminary where I was; I went to Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, Texas, in part of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. At that time, it was a college and theology seminary. But those were difficult times for seminaries, as Pope Benedict mentions, and you know, and I lived through some of that.
I feel like I got as solid a formation as virtually anywhere in those years. The seminary, Holy Trinity, that I went to was known in those days as a conservative place. I was just mentioning to someone in a meeting this afternoon, I’m really frustrated and tired of the conservative-liberal split in the Church. I hope that we can simply be living the Catholic truths, but you know the word “conservative” has been bouncing around for all of my lifetime. And the seminary was labeled as “conservative,” which, looking back, I think was basic to orthodoxy.
We didn’t get some of the riches that I’ve discovered, as a priest and now as a bishop, that the Church has to offer. Some of that was simply not referred to. And I think, in the whole area of celibacy, I think seminaries are doing a better job of recognizing that this is a challenging but beautiful way of life that is rich and life-giving and can be a great blessing to the individual man who’s choosing it and certainly to the Church that we serve.
I have to say that I’ve grown in that understanding myself, because, you know, I literally grew up in the midst of the sexual revolution. And I think that, honestly, I’ll be very honest, that at times, through my seminary formation, and even since as a celibate priest, we live in a culture where it’s like: “You must be from another planet if you’re never going to have sex.” I mean, it’s just been advertised. It’s so pivotal and so much a part of, well, “you’re not grown-up if you haven’t had sex.” I mean, you know, they have movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it’s a comedy about how ridiculous could that be — and we’ve just lost … our moorings, as far as sexual intimacy, only for a man and a woman committed in a lifelong marriage, open to children — that is like another planet.
The Gospel has continued to say, and, thankfully, Catholic teaching has held to, that basic truth. I don’t believe Pope Benedict directly mentioned Humanae Vitae; but the fact that he mentioned 1968, I think, was significant because Humanae Vitae came out that year. … And in many ways, the sexual revolution was able to really take fire because even the Church and many bishops rejected the promulgation of Humanae Vitae from Pope Paul VI. And I think that is a significant turning point where the sexual revolution, which was already getting on the tracks, it became a bullet train after that, because people said, “Well, it is all relative, and we can make our own morality.” And all of that just began to take over. I was formed in the midst of all of that. And I think that we’ve got to get back to an understanding of the precious gift that sex is. I mean, Catholics had been beat up all of my lifetime, and I’m sure before that: “Oh, you’re so down on sex.”
The Church is not, but the Church is clear about what God has revealed to us and what it’s for. And it’s a very narrow gate that most of the world and many Catholics ignore. And the whole reality of Humanae Vitae and ignoring contraception as anything that was an issue to be dealt with, I think, has placed us where we are in 2019. But as Pope Emeritus Benedict says beautifully, we’re not people of despair and sadness.
We have hope. All we have to do is embrace that truth again. And I see it happening, as he speaks in the letter about the good people. That’s one thing, and I’ve mentioned it to the priests as we’ve gathered here in the Diocese of Tyler, just a small diocese, and the northeastern corner of Texas, it has been a blessing to me to simply go out to the parishes, see people coming to Mass, baptizing their children, getting married, going to confession, living the Catholic life in the midst of all of this noise and believing. I mean, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration and clearly believing what the Church teaches. Certainly they’re not unaffected by the confusion and the scandal. And it’s been heartbreaking for people. But I think that I’m blessed as a bishop to be able to go around this diocese and see the Church that Pope Emeritus Benedict mentions in his letter that is there and always will be.
There will always be people: Christ promised that the Church would exist always until the end of time, guided by the Holy Spirit. That is, it is not just an institution. The institution can and does take different forms and different things change; different things rise and fall in the institutional Church. But that heart of the Church, of people living the word of God, celebrating the sacraments, knowing Christ in the Eucharist, that core of the Church that began literally as soon as Christ ascended to the Father, that Church was there then; it’s still here now.
And it always will be. And I think that’s a great anchor and hope again for the people that may be questioning their faith to return to those basics that we all need to be nurtured by, especially as we go into Holy Week. I said it to the children at the grade-school Mass I had this morning that, really, if you look at Holy Week throughout the year, whether it’s the Mass or crucifixes in our homes, there’s so many things that are originated in what we call “Holy Week” and that timeframe that’s described in the Gospels that we live out every day throughout the year in Catholic liturgy and Catholic Tradition and Catholic sacraments and sacramentals.
I think that Pope Benedict is just reminding us of the treasure that is always there, and we have to just keep returning to that treasure.
Pope Benedict is very concerned in his essay about the formation of young men for the priesthood. First, what advice do you give to a young man who’s discerning a call to the priesthood, but, also, how are you giving encouragement to your priests, especially your younger priests, in the climate that we have today?
It’s all the same message, and it’s pretty simple: fidelity to Christ. … I just this week welcomed another young man to officially begin his formation for the seminary for the Diocese of Tyler and encouraged him to be faithful to Christ. He’s in a seminary, which goes back to the idea of a “seed bed.” It’s a place of formation. It’s a place of discernment. The seminary needs to be a place of great virtue, of great moral challenges, of living the Gospel in every aspect of our lives without duplicity and joyfully embracing that. And that kind of clarity can help a young man to say, “I really can do this, and this is bringing me joy and fulfillment,” or “I’m just not making it. It’s not working. I can’t handle this celibacy or other aspects of a priestly call.” And, really, it just is by extension the same thing for priests who are ordained.
In my experience in a small diocese, we’re blessed with some fine young priests, and I think this has had an impact on them even more deeply than the priests my age or a little younger, a little older. We went through a period in our formation and the life of the world, the life of the Church where the ideals of the Catholic faith were kind of almost, you know, given a sort of a backhand comment that, “Well, you know, that’s nice, and that’s beautiful theology, but let’s get real: Nobody can really live up to that.” Well, I think these young priests have been formed in a time, thankfully, where they say, “Yes, they can live up to it; they’re called saints; they’re called martyrs, and they need to live up to it. We need to live up to it.”
I think I was formed in a time where, you know, the call to holiness was sometimes kind of put on the shelf, and it’s like, “Well, it’s not very practical and not very realistic. We got businesses to run (even referring to the Church). We got things to manage.”
Ultimately, I’ve encouraged the seminarians and the younger priests: “You’re on the right track: It’s all about a call to holiness.”
And that’s what’s been so tragic about this latest eruption of the scandals and the sexual immorality among priests, bishops, cardinals, whoever. … We’re all called to holiness from our baptism; and for the men who were supposed to be facing that call and leading others to it to be ignoring the call and living a life of depravity and duplicity, that is heartbreaking. And I know it’s been heartbreaking to some of our men and to seminarians.
But, thankfully, I really have talked to the rectors in the seminaries that we use, and I believe that they are taking this very seriously, in a healthy way focusing on it, and not letting it totally dominate because they need to get on with studies and studying Church history and studying the sacraments and the liturgy and all of the things. But the underpinnings of a basic moral life, living the virtuous call of the Gospel and acknowledging that we all fail, in one way or another, we’re all sinners. … And I think that especially the seminarians and the younger priests need to cling to this treasure that they have been cultivating in their lives and really believe it is true and it’s not just some “pie in the sky” sort of illusory idea that’s nice. It’s not a utopia. It’s the Kingdom of God. And I think that that’s what we all need to really remember.
Yes, it’s impossible to live up to. I’m not worthy — none of us is; but Christ has established the possibility of embracing his worthiness for our own lives. And that’s what the saints and martyrs through the ages [lived] — and Pope Benedict even alludes to modern-day martyrs that have died for this truth, that so many are trying to dilute.
I think the seminarians and the priests need to simply be faithful to Christ and really let that get deeper and richer in what it means for their daily journey. And as I say that, and as I say that to them, I do look in the mirror and say, “Joe, that’s what you need to live as well, just as a man, just as a priest; now as a bishop and a shepherd for the People of God.”
Janet Smith recently wrote a commentary for the Register titled, “God Chose You to Live at This Moment in Church History”; and the commentary was about how we can’t let the dismal scandals we are living through weaken our faith. You retweeted the link to the commentary, with your own comment. You said, “You can count me as a bishop who has been ‘red pilled.’ God chose you to live at this moment in Church history … and in my case to be a successor of the apostles. I am a weak & sinful man, but I will do my best.” First, I have to ask you, the use of the term “red-pilled” strikes a lot of people as very interesting.
I’d seen the movie The Matrix. That’s what it comes from. But I didn’t remember it really, but as I understood it, it basically was a way of saying, “I’ve seen the truth.” And that’s what I meant.
And I think that what I’m talking about when I say I’ve been “red-pilled” is I’ve seen how true the teachings of our Catholic faith are, how important they are.