Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis often referred to Lord of the World, a 1907 novel by Fr. Robert Hugh Benson about an apocalyptic clash between two opposing forces.
One is the Catholic Church, renewed and purified, surviving only marginally in small pockets of believers in various counties, but potently ruling over Rome and a large area around the Eternal City, where 6,000,000 Catholics have gathered – a concession by the Italian government in exchange for the Church giving up its claims in the rest of the country.
The other side is what we would now call “globalism,” which dominates the rest of the world with promises of peace and prosperity (both goods in their proper places, of course).
The book’s title cleverly raises a question: Which is the true “lord”? The God who made heaven and earth, or “the lord of this world,” a “humanist” ruler – actually a front for devilish forces – with his powerful machines and seduction of hearts and minds?
In 1992, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger also cited Benson (a brilliant writer and convert whose father had been Archbishop of Canterbury!) in a speech at the Catholic University of Milan. President George H.W. Bush had just called for a New World Order, following the demise of the Soviet Union. The future pontiff cited Benson about the sharpest threat to humanity in our time: “The anti-Christ is represented as the great carrier of peace in a similar new world order.”
I’m in Rome this week for several projects, among them following the writing of the Instrumentum laboris, the Working Plan for the Synod on Synodality, which was supposed to be released last Thursday. It wasn’t. But the Synod’s stance towards related postmodern pieties has gotten me thinking about Benson’s vision and how it has – and hasn’t – come to pass. At least not yet.
Pope-watchers have been puzzled – as by many things Francis has said and done – that the pontiff early warned of the deceptive City of Man – especially in ways associated with the United States – but he seems relatively incautious about similar threats arising from the United Nations and European Union. Indeed, during the medical tyranny that shut down the world for two years, the Holy See cooperated with potentially dangerous global forces.
No one really knew how to handle the pandemic. But the eagerness of many nations, including the Vatican, to go along with radical restrictions on everyday life, allegedly based in “science,” revealed a spirit that Benson, a century earlier, understood in its depths.
He didn’t predict, however, that the worldly spirit would infiltrate the Church herself to a degree. Instead, he anticipated that Rome – he was writing fiction but meant as a kind of cautionary tale – would have to wall itself off from the humanistic/anti-Christ’s onslaught. The pages he wrote about what this would look like are still of interest since they show how Catholic life might someday have to be lived day-to-day.
When the protagonist, an English priest, travels to the Holy City, he at first feels the tension between the half-hidden life he was accustomed to in London, and the unapologetic social Catholicism of fortress Rome. Planes and trains have been banned. People travel on carts and animals. Most modern “conveniences” are lacking (TV and cell phones were not yet invented, but one can imagine how they’d be treated). Elaborate decoration and ritual have returned: “[S]trange though these were, he had found them a refreshment. It had seemed to remind him that man was human, and not divine as the rest of the world proclaimed – human, and therefore careless and individualistic; human, and therefore occupied with interests other than those of speed, cleanliness, and precision.”
But this is just the prelude to an even deeper shift in perspective:
Life looked simpler here; the interior world was taken more for granted; it was not even a matter of debate. There it was, imperious and objective, and through it glimmered to the eyes of the soul the old Figures that had become shrouded behind the rush of worldly circumstance. The very shadow of God appeared to rest here; it was no longer impossible to realise that the saints watched and interceded, that Mary sat on her throne, that the white disc on the altar was Jesus Christ. . . .[H]e felt more at ease, less desperately anxious, more childlike, more content to rest on the authority that claimed without explanation, and asserted that the world, as a matter of fact, proved by evidences without and within, was made this way and not that. . . .[H]ere he sat in a place which was either a stagnant backwater of life, or else the very mid-current of it; he was not yet sure which.
But that’s soon settled. It’s fullness of life.
Walking around Rome these days – which is decidedly not Benson’s simplified and sanctified refuge – you can’t help noticing two worlds very much at odds.
The city is mostly devoted to tourism, which means visitors shopping and dining in ways they could just as easily have done at home. There’s some visiting of churches and the ancient ruins – gregarious and fun in its way. But it’s a continuation of worldliness by other means.
Then there’s the other Rome and those who come here as pilgrims, not tourists. I’ve been struggling myself this visit – after all the recent controversy – to rediscover the magic I first felt here decades ago. Even in the middle of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, Rome then seemed more human, in Benson’s sense, than it does now. And the Church, under the newly-elected John Paul II, seemed a real alternative – to everything.
You can’t help wondering today – if our secular lords continue on their destructive ways – whether the only worldly recourse for Catholics will be a radically different sort of life, like Benson imagined. Pray God it doesn’t come to that. But as two popes noted, Benson was prophetic: to be faithful today may require accepting great, once unimaginable sacrifices.
*Image: Alegory of Satan (Lord of the World) by Ludwik Stasiak, c. 1900 [National Museum in Krakow, Poland]
You may also enjoy:
Mary Eberstadt’s The Cross Amid the Crisis
James Matthew Wilson’s On Being Catholic Modern