As Catholics, we should rejoice that we are members of the only earthly institution that has been given a divine guarantee of success. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, Jesus instituted the Church on the Rock of St. Peter, and then the Lord said about the Church, “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”
That’s terrific news! The God of the Universe has promised that no matter how bad things get, not even the forces of the Evil One can defeat the Church. Whew, I feel better already. It’s pretty obvious sinister forces have been working overtime to destroy the Church, especially in recent years with all the scandals. Sometimes it seems the Church is about to fade into obscurity, or even collapse. So it’s good to know that Jesus Himself promised that the Church ultimately will survive and thrive.
Anyway, over the years, I’ve heard some priests and preachers explain Jesus’ words to mean that no matter how viciously Satan attacks the Church, the Church will have the power to withstand those attacks and avoid being conquered.
But wait a minute. That’s not what Jesus said. He specifically used the term “gates.” Gates are used to defend something, such as a house or city. Gates are used to keep invaders out. Gates are employed as a military tactic when you are on the defensive.
Jesus did not say the power of Hell shall not prevail against the Church’s gates. He said the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church.
To be fair, in the book of Revelation, St. John does talk about gates, when he described the future heavenly city with big walls and 12 gates made of pearl, the famous “pearly gates.” (Which prompted comedian Jim Gaffigan to observer, “Heaven has gates? You mean Heaven is a gated community? What are they trying to do, keep teenagers out who want to sneak in and use the pool?”) However, John’s symbolic writing was based on his apocalyptic vision and most Scripture scholars say we should not take it too literally. Besides, John was talking about future conditions in Heaven; Jesus was talking about the Church on earth, here and now.
So, here and now on earth, Jesus tells us that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church. Do you know what that means? It means we are not supposed to be on defense, hiding behind our walls and gates, hoping the forces of evil are kept out. Instead, we are supposed to be on offense, on the attack, and trying to smash down the gates of Hell and destroy evil.
How exactly do we go on the offensive, on the attack, and destroy evil? Here’s an idea: every time we see someone doing something we don’t approve, let’s scream that he’s an evil sinner and beat him over the head with a Bible. That ought to work. Um, maybe not.
Yes, we should be on the offensive, on the attack, rather than defensively sitting back in our little parishes and hoping that evil doesn’t get inside. But for followers of Christ, we don’t “attack” using traditional weapons. We also don’t “attack” using emotional weapons, such as judgment, condemnation, screaming, and metaphorical (or literal) beatings over the head with Bibles.
We must go on the offensive, on the attack, by using the spiritual weapons of the Lord: love and mercy and truth. We have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, just as Jesus commanded. The weapons of love and mercy and truth can conquer evil. We have been commanded by the Lord to go on the offensive, go on the attack, and smash down the gates of Hell. He has assured us that we will be victorious.