“Waiting for the Barbarians,” Constantine Cavafy’s poem about civilizational collapse, describes a geriatric Rome so desiccated and demoralized that it is almost entirely without hope. It has roused itself on one failing elbow to grasp at a last chance for regeneration—the barbarian hordes rumored to be approaching, doubtless to sack and burn, but perhaps also to build a new empire on the ruins of the old.
But in a coup de théâtre that lands like a punch, Cavafy whips the rug out from under Rome’s feet. There are no barbarians. It’s of no use to huddle together, waiting for winds and whirlwinds outside the kingdom to settle its fate. If there is to be any salvation for Rome, it must come from within.
We Catholics look around our nations and our Church and wonder where the vitality of our Faith has gone. Where is the missionary energy that will convert America and convert the world? Where is the drive that ought to keep today’s Catholics practicing their religion and passing on a vibrant faith to the next generation? Where is the fearless and unapologetic demeanor of the Ages of Faith, like a bright girdle furled around the earth?
Perhaps we should try to harness a vital force of our own time. What powerful movement could we invite into our midst to lend our Church a new relevancy? Perhaps we could welcome Antifa into our churches and support them in their battle for social justice. Or we could tap into the energy of the pro-immigration movement, or the environmental movement, or perhaps try to ride the feisty bull of Marxism. “Someday,” wrote Teilhard de Chardin in a rush of hubristic optimism, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
Glowing words; but all this searching outside the Church of Christ for signs of the times and energies of love and forces of history and winds of change amounts to no more than waiting for the barbarians. Are we decrepit citizens of a dying empire, or living members of the Mystical Body of Christ?
We have in this Mystical Body the throbbing center of the energies of real love: the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in Whom we find the answer to every trouble of our times, be it political, philosophical, or spiritual. We have no need to sit at the city gates, vainly attempting to capture the attention of the popular causes of the moment. We have the source of all vitality in our midst, and it is Jesus Christ, yesterday, and today, and the same forever.
In the most Sacred Heart of Jesus we find the solution to our ever-more conflicted and divided societies. Only the love of Christ and His goodness can change hearts that are filled with hatred and minds that are filled with erroneous ideas and false judgement. His loving authority can teach our police officers, our fathers and our leaders to combine gentleness with strength. His Sacred Heart, Pius XII wrote in Haurietis Aquas (1956) “is the most effective school of the love of God,” which is “the foundation on which to build the kingdom of God in the hearts of individuals, families, and nations.”
In the most Sacred Heart of Jesus we find the cure for our wounded and broken personalities. His Divine Heart of flesh teaches us the goodness of physical humanity and helps us reject the gnostic theories that, with utter contempt for the human body, declare the human will free to redesign and redefine it at will, or to dispose of it through euthanasia or abortion. His perfect humanity gives us hope that through His love and grace our wounds and flaws, whether they are the result of our own actions or the injustice and cruelty of others, can be made whole.
Our political troubles too can be resolved by recourse to the Sacred Heart. Leo XIII wrote with sadness in Annum Sacrum (1899) of the separation between Church and state: “This policy almost tends to the removal of the Christian faith from our midst, and, if that were possible, of the banishment of God Himself from the earth.” Yet it is through Christ, as St. Paul tells us, that it has pleased the Father “to reconcile all things unto Himself, making peace through the blood of His cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven.” How shall we have peace on earth without the Prince of Peace?
On the contrary, as the popes repeatedly taught and as Pius XI reiterated in Quas Primas (1925): “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” This recognition does not require a change in regime; democratic and monarchical structures alike have the capacity and the duty to recognize that all law is founded on the law of Christ, all justice on His justice and all order on His order.
They must furthermore formally recognize Christ as the King of kings, the ruler of all nations, and in this they only recognize the reality of what is. For the Son of God rules over us whether or not we in our imaginary greatness choose to acknowledge the fact; but our pursuit of order and justice is doomed from the outset if we refuse to found it on the love that moves the sun and all the stars.
Stop waiting for the barbarians, fellow Catholics. We have within the Catholic Church a source of vitality, an energy of love sufficient to transform all things in Christ, and it is the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus with His divinity and humanity, His holy legislative and judicial powers, His sacred and unlimited royalty.
This is the greatest and only cause, for it contains what is good and worthy in every lesser cause, and screens out the rest; this is the energy of love to which we must harness ourselves if we want to change the world.
Image: A stained glass window in the sacristy of All Saints Catholic Church, St. Peters, Missouri (Wikimedia Commons)