In a homily last November, Pope Francis referred to a novel by Fr. Robert Hugh Benson called Lord of the World. Fr. Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury. He made headlines when in 1902 he became a Catholic and again in 1904 when he was ordained a Catholic priest.
Father Benson, who died aged 43 in 1914, spent his last decade preaching, counselling and, above all, writing sermons, apologetics, and novels. As a high profile Anglican who had become a Roman Catholic priest, he defended not only the Catholic faith but Catholic liturgical practises deplored by Protestant Britain. The challenges of a Catholic minority despised by the non-Catholic majority caught his imagination: both his apocalyptic Lord of the World (1908) and historical Come Rack! Come Rope! (1912) explore the choices of English Catholics suddenly enveloped by violent persecution.
The Holy Father’s attention was caught by the prophetic nature of Lord of the World, and indeed there are some startling parallels between the 21st century envisioned by Fr. Benson and our own. When the novel begins, the competing powers are the American Republic (which, manifesting its destiny, has swallowed the whole continent), a Europe Union, and an Eastern Empire dominated by China/Japan and Islam. Monarchy has been abolished in Europe; both America and England are socialist republics. The religion of the ruling classes, and indeed of the majority of the people in the West, is atheist humanism. And as there exist bombs that can wipe out entire cities, the West fears very much a war with the East. Oh, and a junior senator rising suddenly to prominence in America may well be the Anti-Christ. I kid you not.
Benson is at his most generous when he describes the atheist humanism of his European dystopia. Indeed, he depicts a central atheist character as a very good, compassionate and even spiritual young woman. Mabel Brand believes wholeheartedly in the nobility of the human spirit and is repulsed by any kind of human violence or suffering. When an airship (Benson also predicts commuter flights) comes crashing to the ground before her, Mabel is deeply thankful when a euthanasia squad arrives to put the dying out of their misery. She finds the actions of a Catholic priest on the scene, and the faith of those who cry out to him, inexplicable. She herself has no belief in personal immortality; her greatest hope lies in world peace.
The other religion in Benson’s fictional Europe is Catholicism, as almost all Christians have chosen between papal authority and the normative atheism. And it is here that Benson’s reputation as a prophet founders, for although the Catholicism he depicts was familiar, if old-fashioned, in 1908, it would be hardly recognizable to most Catholics today.
Fr. Benson’s fictional pontiff, John XXIV, has traded all Church property in Italy for the City of Rome, over which he has assumed temporal authority (and reinstated the death penalty). Catholic public worship and devotions are as they were in 1908, with the renewal of some papal ceremonies abolished even then. And, most strikingly, there remains a link between monarchy and the papacy. Deposed Christian kings, including the convert King William of England, find refuge in Rome and serve High Mass at the papal altar.
However, there is something Benson does indeed get right about the contemporary Church, something unthinkable in 1908, and it is—as the Holy Father alluded to in his November homily—a mass apostasy of Catholics, including Catholic clergy, during the latter half of the 20thcentury. By illustration, Benson presents us with two young Catholic priests, Father Percy and Father Francis. Fr. Percy, who is a man of prayer, remains steadfast in his faith, whereas Fr. Francis, who is a liturgist, cracks under the ideological pressures of the modern world of psychology and materialism in the first chapter. He becomes Mr. Francis and, when atheistic humanism develops as a state religion with mandatory worship, resumes his liturgical career in the ruling sect.
Benson very much loved and defended the traditional liturgies of the Catholic Church, which—not having lived to see 1915—he could compare only to Anglican and other Protestant worship. In his essay “The Religious Dance”, he argues that “ceremonial for the Protestant is a way of doing things; for the Catholic it is an offering that he makes to God.” Benson objects not to ritual for God’s sake, but to ritual for ritual’s sake. When the prayerful Fr. Percy is summoned to Rome, seminarians flock to see how beautifully he celebrates Mass. When Mr. Francis plans a new humanist liturgy, he gives full vent to his creativity in solitude.
“This morning I assisted at one of the most impressive dramas in the world—I mean the solemn Requiem Mass,” Benson wrote in his Papers of a Pariah, and he borrows heavily from traditional Catholic worship to heighten the drama of his novel. It is a thrilling, even edifying, tale with one near-fatal stylistic error: a rather tedious and unnecessary prologue in which Benson tells, rather than shows, how his fictional 21st century is differs from the realities of the early 20th. I fear that many readers, curiosity piqued by the Holy Father, will put down Lord of the World after reading the first two pages. However, I recommend that they either march patiently through the prologue or skip to Chapter One. The novel is a gripping work of the Catholic imagination, carrying us in time both to an imagined future apocalypse and to the Catholicism of 1908.