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 V, Section I

(Note: The hero of the story, a young English priest named Fr. Percy Franklin, has gone 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 anti-Christ. Now Percy has been made a cardinal, and is studying the new form of liturgy which has been imposed by law in England, a form of pantheism…)

Percy Franklin, the new Cardinal-Protector of England, came slowly along the passage leading from the Pope’s apartments, with Hans Steinmann, Cardinal-Protector of Germany, blowing at his side. They entered the lift, still in silence, and passed out, two splendid vivid figures, one erect and virile, the other bent, fat, and very German from spectacles to flat buckled feet.

At the door of Percy’s suite, the Englishman paused, made a little gesture of reverence, and went in without a word.

A secretary, young Mr. Brent, lately from England, stood up as his patron came in.

“Eminence,” he said, “the English papers are come.”

Percy put out a hand, took a paper, passed on into his inner room, and sat down.

There it all was—gigantic headlines, and four columns of print broken by startling title phrases in capital letters, after the fashion set by America a hundred years ago. No better way even yet had been found of misinforming the unintelligent.

He looked at the top. It was the English edition of the Era. Then he read the headlines. They ran as follows:


He ran his eyes down the page, reading the vivid little phrases, and drawing from the whole a kind of impressionist view of the scenes in the Abbey on the previous day, of which he had already been informed by the telegraph, and the discussion of which had been the purpose of his interview just now with the Holy Father.

There plainly was no additional news; and he was laying the paper down when his eye caught a name.

“It is understood that Mr. Francis, the ceremoniarius (to whom the thanks of all are due for his reverent zeal and skill), will proceed shortly to the northern towns to lecture on the Ritual. It is interesting to reflect that this gentleman only a few months ago was officiating at a Catholic altar. He was assisted in his labours by twenty-four confreres with the same experience behind them.”

“Good God!” said Percy aloud. Then he laid the paper down. But his thoughts had soon left this renegade behind, and once more he was running over in his mind the significance of the whole affair, and the advice that he had thought it his duty to give just now upstairs.

Briefly, there was no use in disputing the fact that the inauguration of Pantheistic worship had been as stupendous a success in England as in Germany. France, by the way, was still too busy with the cult of human individuals, to develop larger ideas.

But England was deeper; and, somehow, in spite of prophecy, the affair had taken place without even a touch of bathos or grotesqueness. It had been said that England was too solid and too humorous. Yet there had been extraordinary scenes the day before. A great murmur of enthusiasm had rolled round the Abbey from end to end as the gorgeous curtains ran back, and the huge masculine figure, majestic and overwhelming, coloured with exquisite art, had stood out above the blaze of candles against the tall screen that shrouded the shrine. Markenheim had done his work well; and Mr. Brand’s passionate discourse had well prepared the popular mind for the revelation. He had quoted in his peroration passage after passage from the Jewish prophets, telling of the City of Peace whose walls rose now before their eyes.

“Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee…. For behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered nor come into mind…. Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders. O thou so long afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted; behold I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and thy foundations with sapphires…. I will make thy windows of agates and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones. Arise, shine, for thy light is come.”

As the chink of the censer-chains had sounded in the stillness, with one consent the enormous crowd had fallen on its knees, and so remained, as the smoke curled up from the hands of the rebel figure who held the thurible. Then the organ had begun to blow, and from the huge massed chorus in the transepts had rolled out the anthem, broken by one passionate cry, from some mad Catholic. But it had been silenced in an instant….

It was incredible—utterly incredible, Percy had told himself. Yet the incredible had happened; and England had found its worship once more—the necessary culmination of unimpeded subjectivity. From the provinces had come the like news. In cathedral after cathedral had been the same scenes. Markenheim’s masterpiece, executed in four days after the passing of the bill, had been reproduced by the ordinary machinery, and four thousand replicas had been despatched to every important centre. Telegraphic reports had streamed into the London papers that everywhere the new movement had been received with acclamation, and that human instincts had found adequate expression at last. If there had not been a God, mused Percy reminiscently, it would have been necessary to invent one. He was astonished, too, at the skill with which the new cult had been framed. It moved round no disputable points; there was no possibility of divergent political tendencies to mar its success, no over-insistence on citizenship, labour and the rest, for those who were secretly individualistic and idle. Life was the one fount and centre of it all, clad in the gorgeous robes of ancient worship. Of course the thought had been Felsenburgh’s, though a German name had been mentioned. It was Positivism of a kind, Catholicism without Christianity, Humanity worship without its inadequacy. It was not man that was worshipped but the Idea of man, deprived of his supernatural principle. Sacrifice, too, was recognised—the instinct of oblation without the demand made by transcendent Holiness upon the blood-guiltiness of man…. In fact,—in fact, said Percy, it was exactly as clever as the devil, and as old as Cain.

The advice he had given to the Holy Father just now was a counsel of despair, or of hope; he really did not know which. He had urged that a stringent decree should be issued, forbidding any acts of violence on the part of Catholics. The faithful were to be encouraged to be patient, to hold utterly aloof from the worship, to say nothing unless they were questioned, to suffer bonds gladly. He had suggested, in company with the German Cardinal, that they two should return to their respective countries at the close of the year, to encourage the waverers; but the answer had been that their vocation was to remain in Rome, unless something unforeseen happened.

As for Felsenburgh, there was little news. It was said that he was in the East; but further details were secret. Percy understood quite well why he had not been present at the worship as had been expected. First, it would have been difficult to decide between the two countries that had established it; and, secondly, he was too brilliant a politician to risk the possible association of failure with his own person; thirdly, there was something the matter with the East.

This last point was difficult to understand; it had not yet become explicit, but it seemed as if the movement of last year had not yet run its course. It was undoubtedly difficult to explain the new President’s constant absences from his adopted continent, unless there was something that demanded his presence elsewhere; but the extreme discretion of the East and the stringent precautions taken by the Empire made it impossible to know any details. It was apparently connected with religion; there were rumours, portents, prophets, ecstatics there.


God as seen by William Blake as the Architect of the world, in Ancient of Days, held in the British Museum, London

Upon Percy himself had fallen a subtle change which he himself was recognising. He no longer soared to confidence or sank to despair. He said his mass, read his enormous correspondence, meditated strictly; and, though he felt nothing he knew everything. There was not a tinge of doubt upon his faith, but neither was there emotion in it. He was as one who laboured in the depths of the earth, crushed even in imagination, yet conscious that somewhere birds sang, and the sun shone, and water ran. He understood his own state well enough, and perceived that he had come to a reality of faith that was new to him, for it was sheer faith—sheer apprehension of the Spiritual—without either the dangers or the joys of imaginative vision. He expressed it to himself by saying that there were three processes through which God led the soul: the first was that of external faith, which assents to all things presented by the accustomed authority, practises religion, and is neither interested nor doubtful; the second follows the quickening of the emotional and perceptive powers of the soul, and is set about with consolations, desires, mystical visions and perils; it is in this plane that resolutions are taken and vocations found and shipwrecks experienced; and the third, mysterious and inexpressible, consists in the re-enactment in the purely spiritual sphere of all that has preceded (as a play follows a rehearsal), in which God is grasped but not experienced, grace is absorbed unconsciously and even distastefully, and little by little the inner spirit is conformed in the depths of its being, far within the spheres of emotion and intellectual perception, to the image and mind of Christ.

So he lay back now, thinking, a long, stately, scarlet figure, in his deep chair, staring out over Holy Rome seen through the misty September haze. How long, he wondered, would there be peace? To his eyes even already the air was black with doom.

He struck his hand-bell at last.

“Bring me Father Blackmore’s last report,” he said, as his secretary appeared. (End, Section I)

(To be continued)

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