The Return from Exile, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 16 February 1936

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'The conclusion of the parable of the prodigal son pictures the father meeting the prodigal. The father met the prodigal on the road, according to the Scriptures, when he was “yet a great way off”. These words have a meaning for us in the modern parallel of the story which we are considering in this course of radio lectures. They imply two things: On the part of the prodigal a recognition that the Father’s House, or the Church, is the only place the prodigal children of Western Civilization can find the Freedom and the Peace they crave; on the part of the Father’s House, or the Church, a recognition of the necessity of hopefulness, and the need of going out into the roads and thoroughfares of the world to meet the prodigal children in an embrace of love, the ring of fidelity, and the cloak of charity.

Firstly, the prodigal children must return to the Father’s House not only and uniquely because it will make them prosperous, but because it will give them Peace and Freedom, which are the conditions of temporal prosperity. The prodigal son did not return because he wanted the banquet of the fatted calf. He returned because he wanted the love, the forgiveness, and the authority of the father’s house. The fatted calf was the by-product of his return: not the goal that was sought. In like manner Western Civilization must seek first the Kingdom of God and His Justice, and all these other things will be added unto it. The fatted calf of earthly prosperity is only secondary: it may or may not follow. What is important is the right relation of lives to God. This was the characteristic note of the teaching of Our Lord and therefore of His Church; namely, what might be called political and economic relativity, namely, social amelioration as a by-product of Christianity. Systems of politics and economics are of secondary importance, but not primary; not ab- solute, but relative. Civilization can be great under a monarchy or a parliament, under a democracy or under imperialism; civilization can be good under free trade or tariff, gold standards or silver standards; but no civilization can be good unless it serves and loves God. Hence to Satan who would have given Him all the political and economic kingdoms of earth Our Lord flung one word “begone”; to those who would trap Him into a dispute about conquered and conquering peoples he said: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s;” and to those who would make Him intervene in matters of money He asks: “who hath appointed me judge, or divider, over you?”

In like manner. Western civilization must not measure the value of Christ’s Church in terms of the fatted calf, increased profits, and favorable balance of trade.

The same false notion about the Church producing prosperity prevailed in Rome at the time of its decline. Alaric came to Rome about the beginning of the fifth century, forced open the Salarian gate and sacked the Capitol, The whole world was stirred by the fall of this mighty Cedar of Libanus. Not since the invasion of Rome by the Gauls 800 years before had the capitol been so threatened, invaded, and outraged. Rome felt she was invulnerable because eternal, little realizing that she was eternal not because of the force of her arms, but because a fisherman came to dwell there. Immediately the cry went up: “We have perished because we have become Christians. Christianity has failed us! We are not as powerful, we are not as mighty, we are not as great as we were with the old gods Aeneas brought from Troy. We are weak with the weakness of the God on a Cross Peter brought back from Calvary. Christianity has brought us bad luck”!

Saint Augustine in far off Africa heard the cry and answered its challenge in his mighty work “The City of God”. He reminded the fallen empire that it had fallen, not because it was Christian, but because it had failed to be Christian. He admitted Rome had done great things for the world; that it had been prosperous and had given man a common law and a common language. Yet these benefits had been purchased by war, slavery, and oppression of the weak, and in the end served only senseless luxury and the mobs of the amphitheatre. He told them in no uncertain terms that Christianity, although possessing a social philosophy and character, never promised to be a social panacea for all the ills of humankind; that the world was only a road and not a house to live in, that life is a pilgrimage to another city, and not the art of making a heaven on earth, that the benefits of Christianity are not restricted to the material. Rather they are like the blood of Christ which regenerates us unto life everlasting.

The world would not listen to Augustine. The world then believed as it believes now, that civilization is identical with prosperity, and that Christianity fails when it fails to make the world prosperous. Within the Church as well as outside, Augustine was begged to be quiet about Christianity bringing supernatural benefits. Everywhere men pleaded: “Si taceat de Roma”. “If he would only shut up about Rome”. But he did not shut up. He preached and cried down the error that the sole business of Christianity is business. And in this day and age when the Father of Christendom reminds the world that its economics and politics can not be divorced from Christian standards of morality, that its social structure can not be made right until men make their peace with God, and that society can not be improved except by reforming the individuals who make it up, the cry of Augustine’s day is hurled in his face: O si taceat de Roma! Oh if he would only shut up about Rome, about the Sanctity of Marraige, about Education built upon Christ, about Grace, about the Sacraments and eternal life. But in these days as in the days of Augustine there must be no silence. Spiritual regeneration must condition social reconstruction. There is no other way than the way of the Lord. He, the living Bread, came on earth when there was a famine and was born in a little city called Bethlehem, the House of Bread. He came on earth when crimes were great and powerful and said that he who took the sword would perish by the sword; He came at a time when slaves were ill treated and yet preached, “servants, obey your master”; He came on earth when men would have proclaimed Him King of their economics and politics and said: “My kingdom is not of this world”; He came on earth to a people who hated Caesar, and paid tribute to Caesar; He came on earth when men judged Him by His earthly power and said: “Take up your cross and follow Me”.

This is the doctrine the Church is preaching today. No other truth than the spiritual can save our civilization. Talking about the Stars and Stripes will not save a country that has been blessed abundantly by God and then forgets God. There are other stars and other stripes than those in our flag and they are the only ones that will ever save us – the stars and stripes of Christ, by whose stars we are illumined and by whose stripes we are healed.

On the other hand, the Father’s House has its obligation to prodigal Western civilization, and that is to go out on the road even though it is yet a long way off, and make the return easy. The Father’s House is inoperative except by and through those who are in it.

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Each Catholic therefore is Christ in his little world. Our Lord has no other feet with which to go about doing good than ours; He has no other cheeks to turn to those who preach class warfare than our own; He has no other lips to teach those who sit in the superstition of the Gentiles than our own. Christ fails in the measure we fail to be Christ-like. No one is unimportant; no action is a-moral or a-Catholic; every thought and every deed has spiritual significance. Out to the roads therefore to meet the prodigal! Never before in 400 years has the world been so willing to return; seldom since the Incarnation have the average man and woman, oppressed with a sense of false values and ambiguous standards, been so dis- posed, as they are today, to receive spiritual guid- ance. And the way they are to be infused is through Catholic Action, or the working of the Pentecostal spirit through every influential cell of the Mystical Body. One thing however we must recognize is that the influence which will make for the civilization of the future will come not from above but from below. During the last century, when Liberalism flourished, practically all the influences of social life came from above; i. e., from the university, the modern prophet, the high-tone, literary magazines, retired business men turned philanthropists, and in general, from the comfortable strata of society. But the influences which are moulding society today are from below, from the proletariat, the working man, the father without a job, the hungry women and children, the people whose wants are too many and whose rights are too few, the great mass who follow bad leaders because they have no good ones, the socially disinherited and the economically dispossessed. The leadership today has shifted to the masses; the makers of the world today are not the men who lead and inspire the masses; they are the men who reflect the masses; the collectivity creates them, but they do not create it.

The proletariat then has an historical mission for the future; the disinherited laborers have a messianic role for generations yet unborn. The proletarian, and not the university professor, is the raw material of future civilization. The question then is: Who will possess the proletariat first, Christ or anti-Christ? The Church or Communism? If the Truth does not get to them, error will. The duty of Catholics at the present time is to go down to the disinherited group and form a Catholic proletarian culture, just as vigorous and just as zealous as any Communist proletariat. The common man may not be socially proper, he may not have a college education, he may not know how to act in our drawing rooms, but he holds the future in his hands. Both the Church and civilization wilier aw their strength from such a man. Hence down to the masses, or in the words of Frederick Ozanam: Passons aux barbares. Pass on to the proletariat; shift them from the circumference to the center, from emptiness to a vision of spiritual realities. Pass on to the masses, teach them not to spend all their energies in finding solutions for transitory problems, but to lay the foundations of a new order. If they are rebellious against law and order, justice and morality, country, and God, it is a reminder of our own unfulfilled duty. They are not altogether to blame if they hate the Church; we would hate it too, if we believed the same lies about it that they do. But whatever be their mentality, they are the raw material of the future; they are the stuff which will compose the Mystical Body of the next generation. It was from the same type of man the Church in the first few centuries recruited her martyrs. Because they are Communists, they are not to be despised; because they are pagans, they are not to be hated. The Church has no fear of paganism. We were born in paganism; we saw it die, and by the grace of God, we will see it die again. The first time we killed it was during a persecution. And that is when we shall kill it again! The Catacombs may once more house martyrs!