When America’s loneliest bishop stretched his arms and stepped from his bedside in the predawn darkness of Deep East Texas yesterday, smallmouth bass were snoozing at the bottom of Bellwood Lake, and prairie lands of cattle kept still before sunrays began to gore their hides.
The Dollar Tree cashiers on Broadway Avenue and servers at Happy’s Fish House and Stanley’s Famous Barbecue were asleep when Bishop Strickland looked into his cell phone.
There, he saw “his own” words. He was leaving the “Bergoglian sect” and Catholic Church, and taking all of Tyler with him. A group claiming to be “The Bishops of Byzantine Catholic Patriarchate” typed it up, attributed it to the bishop, and pushed Tweet.
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Coffee hadn’t even begun its drip yet at the chancery.
In the scalding summertime heat of Texas, when the pines stop growing and slumped ranch hands ease in their work, the Tyler bishop has stopped seeking the cool of the shade. Believe it or not, he’s actually come to embrace the desert lot of his life—even if it leads to his ruination. As coffee brewed, he sent out a tweet, explaining that the “fabricated and scurrilous message” wasn’t from him.
Thereafter, he knelt and began to pray to Mary, to whom he has surrendered his priesthood. It has been through his relationship with the Mother of God, which has intensified over the better part of the last eight years, that she points him to Golgotha, and directs him: Joe, there is your home.
Strangely, the waterless place at the foot of the Slaughtered Lamb has become a palace floor for the soft-spoken bishop. He knows his work on Golgotha might kill him—or at least kill his office of bishop—but this lonely place of the crucifixion has allowed him to rest his head against Christ’s heart and to hide in His wounds.
In this lonely wilderness, he has become one with St. Charles de Foucault, St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Paul the Hermit, and other ascetics who traded comfort in an attempt to live like Jesus, the Poor Man of Nazareth, who had nowhere to lay his head. Bishop Strickland, too, is running out of places to lay his head. It is his head, in fact, that is the story in the Church today.
Of late, Bishop Strickland has felt a kinship with John the Baptist. Herod removed the Baptist’s head because he called out sin, heralded repentance, and boldly proclaimed the Good News of the Savior of the world. At its root, though, John was beheaded for a single reason: his followers were growing. The lone voice in the desert needed to be killed.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last month, Pope Francis ordered a formal investigation on Bishop Strickland, led by Bishop Emeritus Gerald Kicanas of Tucson and Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, New Jersey. According to The Pillar, a priest from the Tyler diocese questioned during the visitation said that interviewers “were already asking questions about who might be a good fit to replace [Strickland].”
Why did the Pope order the apostolic visitation? Opinions are as numberless as the galaxies, but for the sake of column space, the following is a sample-size crystallization. The Catholic Right will claim Francis wanted Strickland’s head because of his candor and sharp elbows as he addresses modern sin and the dark issues in the Church. (The investigation wasn’t due to his visit to Dodger Stadium).
The Catholic Left will point to Strickland’s recklessness and imprudence and claim his questioning of the Holy Father’s leadership led to his demise, when he tweeted this past May: “It is time for me to say that I reject [Pope Francis’s] program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.” They will use this statement as evidence for the visit, despite many dozens of tight-lipped, tepid, and flat-footed American bishops feeling the same as Bishop Strickland. I know this to be true; more than a few have shared their thoughts with me off the record.
More to the point: why is Bishop Strickland’s head on Herod’s block? Why is Bishop Strickland’s head on Herod’s block?Tweet This
I’m going to take a stab at the exact day the headsman began his sharpening. It fell on a cold and gray day in Baltimore, on November 12, 2018. It was then, outside of the annual meeting of bishops, that Bishop Strickland knelt on a cobblestone street to pray the Rosary. Some of his East Texas flock urged him to pray, so the shepherd went. He either didn’t know or care that American Catholics stood outside of the posh downtown hotel, seething over the McCarrick scandal and the virtual silence of bishops in its aftermath.
Bishop Strickland was the lone bishop to pray with the Catholic laity that day. Hours earlier, he had stood among his brethren in a large room and spoke candidly about the Church’s teaching in regard to homosexual activity. He humbly questioned whether bishops actually believed the doctrine of the Church in regard to what the catechism calls an “intrinsically disordered” act and way of living.
Before that day, Bishop Strickland was merely a countrified Marian bishop from a speck of a diocese, a holy hick meant to be ignored. After that autumn day, though, headsmen began to gather.
In 2019, I met Bishop Strickland after he read my book, The Priests We Need to Save the Church. We shared lunch at a remote parish in East Texas and ate sandwiches beneath a swallowing blue sky. After finishing, he asked if I wouldn’t mind him going into the church to pray. He knelt on the tiled floor in front of the tabernacle for thirty or so minutes.
He then shared a small story.
“When I first became a bishop, a gentleman came up to me and said, ‘Bishop Strickland, we really like your type. You’re like a tall, cool glass of water.’ When he said that, I felt pretty good about it, and myself.
“Then a few years went by and I began to read a book on the necessity of priests making a daily Holy Hour. I’ve made at least one Holy Hour every day since. Today, I need to go to Christ in Adoration like I need water and air. … It was during one of those days of Adoration that I heard Mary speak interiorly to me. She said she didn’t need a bishop to be a cool glass of water; she wanted me to be a poured chalice of her Son’s Most Precious Blood. … She was calling me to take up her Son’s cross and to follow him daily in proclaiming and teaching the fullness of the Gospel and Church doctrine—no matter how difficult things became.
“I remember clearly saying that day, ‘I will never back down from proclaiming the Truth.’ … In a sense, Mary was calling me to die that day. She was, in a way I think, asking me to accept the martyrdom that comes from preaching Truth alone.”
Have you heard a similar statement from your bishop? Do you know of a single American bishop who has expressed a desire to die a martyr’s death?
Why have bishops remained noiseless in the aftermath of what the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández from Argentina, said last week about not ruling out blessing same-sex unions? Bishop Americo Aguiar from Portugal, the chief coordinator of the upcoming World Youth Day, said last week, “We don’t want to convert these young people to Jesus Christ.” This statement is not only baffling, it seems to rise from the seventh ring of hell—yet virtually every bishop in America has made no mention of it.
Among the Pope’s selections to be voting members of the Synod on Synodality are Cardinals Blase Cupich, Wilton Gregory, and Robert McElroy—confirmed progressives with track records of steering dioceses closer to their own ideologies. Each of these cardinals has invited Fr. James Martin (another Pope-invited Synod voting member) into their terrain; each has also allowed “Pride Masses” to be celebrated in their diocese. These men are the voters of the same Synod that German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called a “hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ.” He said if the Synod was successful, it would mark “the end of the Catholic Church.”
Whether or not Müller’s apocalyptic words come to pass, he is a shepherd like Strickland, who sees fanged wolves and confronts them. Numberless faithful Catholics believe what Müller does: the Synod on Synodality has been commandeered to subvert and distort the moral doctrine of the Church. The reasons are multitudinous—but for one, a pair of homosexual-friendly cardinals were appointed by Pope Francis to lead the most prominent synodal leadership roles.
The burden of a Catholic bishop’s identity is to die to protect his flock. In years gone by, bishops seemed to know the centerpiece of their vocation was an identification with the crucified Christ, who proclaimed Truth and protected Church doctrine until his death. Like Christ, Bishop Strickland understands the duty of a shepherd is to become, unhesitatingly, a victim for his sheep.
Look around. American shepherds reside in what look like mansions or palaces. Many have chefs, chauffeurs, and cache. Their headdress isn’t a crown of thorns; it’s a custom-fit miter. And so what of their sheep? Do they stick around in a post-Covid Catholic Church? No. Catholics flee from the Church in 2023 like the Israelites from Pharaoh. And many who remain are unformed in their faith, like millions of antelopes grazing in fields amid crouched lions.
Thankfully, though, those seemingly few holy bishops who remain have become like pacing shepherds on Irish hillsides, who stay attuned to the souls and travailed sheep in their flock. They climb crags, descend into ravines, confront the actual causes of danger and evil, and bring the lost sheep back into the arms of Christ. Spiritual fatherhood — true shepherding — demands spiritual, physical, and intellectual effort. Shepherding takes boldness; a sacrificial safeguarding of souls and the anchoring of their flock to dogma, doctrine, and Christ’s Sacred Heart. This is the lone action required by bishops in a society that is fast becoming paganized.
Fun fact: Bishop Kicanas and Sullivan visited Tyler, Texas to interview Bishop Strickland on the Vigil of the Nativity of John the Baptist. With corruption heavy in today’s Church, do not be surprised if you hear the news that the bishop has lost his head; that he’s been removed from his position as bishop of Tyler. He vowed, though, to Mary that he would accept pain, even his own death, in order to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Gospel—even when many in today’s Church seem intent to change it.
If Bishop Strickland does, in fact, lose his head—I’ll fight. I am not really a Twitter or hashtag user, but I will begin in two ways:
No. 1. #DefundTheUSCCB.
No. 2. I will call out faithful bishops who remained silent while our Catholic Church imploded, and kept quiet while their brother lost his head.
From Venerable Fulton Sheen: “Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, and the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and your religious act like religious.”
[Photo Credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller]