Pope Francis and the Barbarians

Pope Francis and the Barbarians September 17, 2015

Eager to glimpse the big picture of Francis’ pontificate? Frustrated connecting the dots from soundbyte to soundbyte? Read Constantine Cafavy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which Rod Dreher was kind enough to contextualize for readers.

Cafavy describes the government and citizens of an unnamed city waiting for the arrival of some unnamed barbarians. Their mood is less purely apprehensive than you’d expect. With the emperor wearing his crown and the consul and praetors their jewelry, the rulers are making their capitulation into a carnival. As time passes, the populace shows signs of “restlessness” and “confusion,” and the streets start to empty, everyone looking “lost in thought.”

The reason:

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Cafavy is describing a civilization in the last stages of decay. Having exhausted its own possibilities, it’s grown bored with itself and craves an elixir from without. The senators have stopped passing laws because “Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating” – a sign that the civilization has lost the ability, or the will, to solve its own problems. On learning that the city’s “distinguished orators” have taken a powder from the welcome ceremony, ostensibly because the barbarians “are bored by rhetoric and public speaking,” we’re meant to understand that the city’s native culture has turned stale generally.

As this late refugee crisis is revealing, Francis thinks somewhat along the lines of those notables and citizens. Of course, he wouldn’t use the word “barbarian” to describe the Middle Easterners now thronging up through the Balkans. (Nor would I, although I have my doubts about Petra Lazslo, the Hungarian camerawoman caught on video kicking and tripping up various refugees. Obviously, Attila’s genes are still working their special magic in her.) Nor is he handing them the keys to the palace, as Cafavy’s Caesar does. But he does seem to see them – or at least the fact of their arrival – as a potential solution to Western Civilization’s problems.

In a recent interview with Portugal’s Radio Renascença, Francis complained about Europe’s low birth rates and spoke of absorbing migrants as a solution. Addressing religious houses that rent space to travelers but won’t shelter refugees, Francis said, “Well, if that is what you want to do, then pay taxes! A religious school is tax-exempt because it is religious, but if it is functioning as a hotel, then it should pay taxes just like its neighbor.” Apparently, the pope also sees these foreigners as a cure for disengaged, non-apostolic Christianity.

This isn’t to suggest that Francis is treating these Middle Easterners in flight from war and poverty as a means to an end – that wouldn’t be good Christianity by anyone’s standards. But he gives the impression of being determined not to let this crisis go to waste. From the moment of his election, Francis has been ordering Christians to “go out to the peripheries.” Now he gets to say, “If you sons of bitches won’t go, I’ll bring the peripheries right to your damned doorstep!” (If you just pictured the Supreme Pontiff brandishing his pearl-handled revolver, well, you’re not alone.)

Francis has made a pet of the phrase “culture of encounter,” and uses it frequently as a synonym for reaching out to the peripheries. As John Allen Jr. wrote, “’Encounter’ is thus, in some ways, a proxy for ‘mercy’ – placing the emphasis on compassion rather than, in the first instance, judgment.” In this unfolding encounter between Mideast and West, the pope hasn’t offered any predictions about who will end up influencing whom, or in what ways. Speaking on Radio Renascença, he did hold out hope that Europe will “recover its faith,” “retake a leadership role in the concert of nations,” and “return to being a mother.”

On the other hand, speaking of the Church, Francis also allowed for the possibility that it “might suffer the same fate as anybody else who goes out: have an accident.” This doesn’t seem to bother him. “Between a sick [i.e. inert and irrelevant] and a bruised Church, I prefer the bruised, because at least it went into the street.” He didn’t say he wanted the strangers in charge of the city, but he didn’t sound very fearful of it, either.

Francis blamed Europe’s low birth rate on a “culture of well-being” – elsewhere he’s called it a “culture of comfort” — that exalts material security over fecundity. If, like Cafavy’s subjects, he’s gotten into the habit of thinking of the outsiders as noble savages, he’s bound to be disappointed when he finds out that many of them are just as bourgeois at heart, and just as eager for comfort, as native Europeans themselves. Muslims may have a lot of children, but as I’ve observed, they also like malls.

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