In 2018 Bishop Joseph Strickland, who led the diocese of Tyler, in Texas, stuck his head above the parapet at a gathering of the United States Bishops’ Conference, 46 days after the Washington Post broke the story of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s now well-known depravity.

He asked: “How did that happen? If we really believe that what was going on was wrong, how did he get promoted? There seem to be questions about that, and I think we have to face that directly. Do we believe the doctrine of the Church or not?”

In 2019 Strickland stood up again, challenging Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego’s seamless-garment approach to life issues which set up an artificial battle between the conference and the Holy Father.

McElroy took issue with language stating that the threat of abortion remained a pre-eminent priority and described such language as being “discordant” if not “inconsistent” with Pope Francis’s teaching.

In response to McElroy’s emphasis on what Cardinal Víctor Manual Fernández, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, has called “the present magisterium”, Strickland said: “I absolutely think pre-eminence needs to stay.”

In 2022, Pope Francis made Bishop McElroy a cardinal; in 2023 he dismissed Bishop Strickland from his diocese, for “administrative” reasons. Whatever the motives behind his removal, however, his attempted side-lining seems to have had the opposite effect. When we met, I asked Strickland how faithful Catholics could make sense of a pastoral approach that often appears incoherent.

“There is a lot of contradiction and confusion,” he said, “which is not of Christ. It’s not what the Church’s role is. Christ is the light of the world, and we need light to be able to see, for humanity to see the truth that is glorious and joyful and full of hope. But if we turn away from that light of Christ and gaze down and look just at the world, this explains at least some of what we are seeing. We are seeing the fruit of those who are looking horizontally and saying, ‘What are the answers?’ and ‘What did you discover?’ instead of looking up to the heavens, to the revealed truth that guides us in the light beyond lights that is Jesus Christ,” he continued.

As Strickland spoke, I was struck by the powerful simplicity of his message and began to understand why, when I visited Chicago last year, his name was mentioned by every Catholic I met. “The shepherd speaks, and the sheep know his voice,” I was told. But it is a voice that seems unwelcome in the Church in the present age of synodality.

“We are all supposed to carry our cross and follow Christ,” Bishop Strickland told me. “There has been an element of that in what’s happened with me, but I also have to say that God is using this situation that I find myself in now in extraordinary ways.” He went on: “I am no longer a diocesan bishop, so I’m not responsible for administration and that has really freed me up to speak the basic truth. I’m a simple guy; I’m not sophisticated and I’m not a great theologian, but I believe deeply and because I’ve been anointed as a successor of the apostles, I take that responsibility very seriously. That was why I asked back in 2018 if we believed what we teach or not.”

Strickland may never wear a red hat, but his impact may be greater than a cardinal’s. As Joseph Ratzinger told his listeners in one of his radio addresses in 1969, the most successful way to discover the embryo of the future in any particular epoch is to examine personalities and the signs of the times that they represent.

After picking out several personalities in the Church who embodied the progressivism of the Enlightenment, the future Benedict XVI concluded with the opposite example of Clement Hofbauer CSsR. “We come to the other man… the Bohemian baker’s apprentice who became a saint. He was a man who loved… thus men were able to rediscover God through him, just as he had discovered men through God and knew what they required. In the end the faith of this poor baker’s apprentice proved to be more reasonable than the academic rationality of the rationalists.”

He continued: “So the thing that outlived the ruins of the declining 18th century was a Church that had become fruitful. The future of the Church can, and will, issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith… it will not issue from those who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves.”

He emphasised: “The future of the Church will be reshaped by men whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.”

Men, I would argue, like Bishop Joseph Strickland. I finish our conversation by asking him for a final word to those who feel alone and isolated, who say that they struggle as if they were sheep without a shepherd. His answer, this Eastertide, reveals the embryo of the future Church of which Cardinal Ratzinger spoke. A Church that will “find her essence afresh with full conviction of that which was always at her centre: faith in the triune God” experiencing again “the sacraments as the worship of God and not as subject for liturgical scholarship”.

“Turn to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ,” Strickland responded. “Turn to His word in the Bible, read a gospel passage and say ‘Lord, help me to know that you are still with us,’ the one who performed this miracle, gave this teaching or scolded the Pharisees, whatever the passage says, that same Jesus is with us. Read scripture in the presence of Our Lord in Eucharistic adoration; say to Him, ‘Lord, I know you are here but help my weakness of faith.’ For those who feel they are without a shepherd – you are not. Look to the Good Shepherd and pray for your shepherd, whether priest or bishop, that those who should be shepherding you will likewise look to the Good Shepherd and be strengthened in their call to proclaim Jesus Christ and to guard the deposit of faith.”

From the Catholic Herald