More than a century ago, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson foresaw the rise of secular humanism, the contraction of the Catholic Church, and the coming of the Antichrist…
By ITV Staff
Editor’s Note: The passage below is from the novel Lord of the World, written by the English Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (the son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury) in 1907. He attempts a vision of the world more than a century in the future — in the early 21st century… our own time… predicting the rise of Communism, the fall of faith in many places, the advance of technology (he foresees helicopters) and so forth, up until… the Second Coming of the Lord, with which his vision ends. For this reason, and also because Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly cited Benson’s book, saying its clarification of the danger of a type of humanitarianism without God is a true danger that we do face, we are printing selections from it in ITV, now and in the months ahead.
Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson (1907)
Book II-The Encounter. Chapter I, Part III
(Note: The hero of the story, a young English priest named Fr. Percy Franklin, has come to Rome to report directly to the Pope on what he has seen in England: the emergence of a popular political figure who seems to be entirely humanistic, and so to have one of the characteristics of the Antichrist. Percy is about to see the “Papa Angelicus,” who is now 89, and has been Pope for nine years…)
It was he [the Papa Angelicus] who had carried out the extraordinary policy of yielding the churches throughout the whole of Italy to the Government, in exchange for the temporal lordship of Rome, and who had since set himself to make it a city of saints.
He had cared, it appeared, nothing whatever for the world’s opinion; his policy, so far as it could be called one, consisted in a very simple thing: he had declared in Epistle after Epistle that the object of the Church was to do glory to God by producing supernatural virtues in man, and that nothing at all was of any significance or importance except so far as it effected this object.
He had further maintained that since Peter was the Rock, the City of Peter was the Capital of the world, and should set an example to its dependency: this could not be done unless Peter ruled his City, and therefore he had sacrificed every church and ecclesiastical building in the country for that one end. Then he had set about ruling his city: he had said that on the whole the latter-day discoveries of man tended to distract immortal souls from a contemplation of eternal verities—not that these discoveries could be anything but good in themselves, since after all they gave insight into the wonderful laws of God—but that at present they were too exciting to the imagination. So he had removed the trams, the volors, the laboratories, the manufactories—saying that there was plenty of room for them outside Rome—and had allowed them to be planted in the suburbs: in their place he had raised shrines, religious houses and Calvaries.
Then he had attended further to the souls of his subjects. Since Rome was of limited area, and, still more because the world corrupted without its proper salt, he allowed no man under the age of fifty to live within its walls for more than one month in each year, except those who received his permit. They might live, of course, immediately outside the city (and they did, by tens of thousands), but they were to understand that by doing so they sinned against the spirit, though not the letter, of their Father’s wishes.
Then he had divided the city into national quarters, saying that as each nation had its peculiar virtues, each was to let its light shine steadily in its proper place. Rents had instantly begun to rise, so he had legislated against that by reserving in each quarter a number of streets at fixed prices, and had issued an ipso facto excommunication against all who erred in this respect. The rest were abandoned to the millionaires. He had retained the Leonine City entirely at his own disposal.
Then he had restored Capital Punishment, with as much serene gravity as that with which he had made himself the derision of the civilised world in other matters, saying that though human life was holy, human virtue was more holy still; and he had added to the crime of murder, the crimes of adultery, idolatry and apostasy, for which this punishment was theoretically sanctioned. There had not been, however, more than two such executions in the eight years of his reign, since criminals, of course, with the exception of devoted believers, instantly made their way to the suburbs, where they were no longer under his jurisdiction.
But he had not stayed here. He had sent once more ambassadors to every country in the world, informing the Government of each of their arrival. No attention was paid to this, beyond that of laughter; but he had continued, undisturbed, to claim his rights, and, meanwhile, used his legates for the important work of disseminating his views. Epistles appeared from time to time in every town, laying down the principles of the papal claims with as much tranquillity as if they were everywhere acknowledged. Freemasonry was steadily denounced, as well as democratic ideas of every kind; men were urged to remember their immortal souls and the Majesty of God, and to reflect upon the fact that in a few years all would be called to give their account to Him Who was Creator and Ruler of the world, Whose Vicar was John XXIV, P.P., whose name and seal were appended.
That was a line of action that took the world completely by surprise. People had expected hysteria, argument, and passionate exhortation; disguised emissaries, plots, and protests. There were none of these. It was as if progress had not yet begun, and volors were uninvented, as if the entire universe had not come to disbelieve in God, and to discover that itself was God. Here was this silly old man, talking in his sleep, babbling of the Cross, and the inner life and the forgiveness of sins, exactly as his predecessors had talked two thousand years before. Well, it was only one sign more that Rome had lost not only its power, but its common sense as well. It was really time that something should be done.
And this was the man, thought Percy, Papa Angelicus, whom he was to see in a minute or two.
The Cardinal put his hand on the priest’s knee as the door opened, and a purple prelate appeared, bowing.
“Only this,” he said. “Be absolutely frank.”
Percy stood up, trembling. Then he followed his patron towards the inner door.
A white figure sat in the green gloom, beside a great writing-table, three or four yards away, but with the chair wheeled round to face the door by which the two entered. So much Percy saw as he performed the first genuflection. Then he dropped his eyes, advanced, genuflected again with the other, advanced once more, and for the third time genuflected, lifting the thin white hand, stretched out, to his lips. He heard the door close as he stood up.
“Father Franklin, Holiness,” said the Cardinal’s voice at his ear.
A white-sleeved arm waved to a couple of chairs set a yard away, and the two sat down.
While the Cardinal, talking in slow Latin, said a few sentences, explaining that this was the English priest whose correspondence had been found so useful, Percy began to look with all his eyes.
He knew the Pope’s face well, from a hundred photographs and moving pictures; even his gestures were familiar to him, the slight bowing of the head in assent, the tiny eloquent movement of the hands; but Percy, with a sense of being platitudinal, told himself that the living presence was very different.
It was a very upright old man that he saw in the chair before him, of medium height and girth, with hands clasping the bosses of his chair-arms, and an appearance of great and deliberate dignity. But it was at the face chiefly that he looked, dropping his gaze three or four times, as the Pope’s blue eyes turned on him. They were extraordinary eyes, reminding him of what historians said of Pius X; the lids drew straight lines across them, giving him the look of a hawk, but the rest of the face contradicted them. There was no sharpness in that. It was neither thin nor fat, but beautifully modelled in an oval outline: the lips were clean-cut, with a look of passion in their curves; the nose came down in an aquiline sweep, ending in chiselled nostrils; the chin was firm and cloven, and the poise of the whole head was strangely youthful. It was a face of great generosity and sweetness, set at an angle between defiance and humility, but ecclesiastical from ear to ear and brow to chin; the forehead was slightly compressed at the temples, and beneath the white cap lay white hair. It had been the subject of laughter at the music-halls nine years before, when the composite face of well-known priests had been thrown on a screen, side by side with the new Pope’s, for the two were almost indistinguishable.
Percy found himself trying to sum it up, but nothing came to him except the word “priest.” It was that, and that was all. Ecce sacerdos magnus! He was astonished at the look of youth, for the Pope was eighty-eight this year; yet his figure was as upright as that of a man of fifty, his shoulders unbowed, his head set on them like an athlete’s, and his wrinkles scarcely perceptible in the half light. Papa Angelicus! reflected Percy.
The Cardinal ceased his explanations, and made a little gesture. Percy drew up all his faculties tense and tight to answer the questions that he knew were coming.
“I welcome you, my son,” said a very soft, resonant voice.
Percy bowed, desperately, from the waist.
The Pope dropped his eyes again, lifted a paper-weight with his left hand, and began to play with it gently as he talked.
“Now, my son, deliver a little discourse. I suggest to you three heads—what has happened, what is happening, what will happen, with a peroration as to what should happen.”
Percy drew a long breath, settled himself back, clasped the fingers of his left hand in the fingers of his right, fixed his eyes firmly upon the cross-embroidered red shoe opposite, and began. (Had he not rehearsed this a hundred times!)
He first stated his theme; to the effect that all the forces of the civilised world were concentrating into two camps—the world and God. Up to the present time the forces of the world had been incoherent and spasmodic, breaking out in various ways—revolutions and wars had been like the movements of a mob, undisciplined, unskilled, and unrestrained. To meet this, the Church, too, had acted through her Catholicity— dispersion rather than concentration: franc-tireurs had been opposed to franc-tireurs. But during the last hundred years there had been indications that the method of warfare was to change… (To be continued)