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Robert Hugh Benson and Christ's Second Coming
How often at Mass we recite the Creed declaring that we believe that Christ, the Lord "will come in glory to judge the living and the dead". Similarly, in the course of the liturgy, we affirm that "we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ." Yet effectively what place does this article of faith actually hold in our hearts and imagination?
From the New Testament, both from what are called the "Little Apocalypses" of the Synoptic Gospels, and perhaps more especially from the Apostolic Epistles, it seems evident that the earliest generation had an intense belief in the imminence of Christ's Second Coming.
St Peter (1:7) speaks quite emphatically of the time "When Jesus Christ is revealed" as a common assumption, while St James (5:3) urges his readers to "be patient until the Lord's coming" and St John (1, 2:18) reminds his readers that "these are the last days" and (3:28) urges them "to have full confidence and not turn from him in shame at Christ's coming."
Yet even towards the end of the Apostolic era, the author of Second Peter (3:8) feels the need to utter a caution: "You must never forget that with the Lord 'a day' can mean a thousand years."
Gradually, however, as the centuries rolled on, such awareness and apprehension of the Second Coming receded into an indefinite future.
Though there was a certain revival of the sense of its imminence at the end of the first Christian millennium, most of us today, in Newman's terms give a mere notional assent to the credal doctrine of the Second Coming: it makes little impression on our imagination. As Newman wrote: "An indolent use of words without apprehending them is the natural concomitant of a merely passive faith." These are words well worth pondering.
As a stimulus to our practical awareness of what we profess, I suggest that we might read something in the way of a novel written from a Catholic background which treats of this theme. I can suggest one such book, as powerfully imaginative as it is deeply faith-inspired, namely Msgr Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, published in 1909. It was once something most Catholics were familiar with, as with Benson's other novels. It has recently (2009) been republished by the American Baronius Press.
In some respects, this book is one of the most impressive pieces of futuristic writing in English - though it is hard to find mention of Benson's name in any history of English Literature.
Briefly, in the introductory chapter, two Catholic priests, one who becomes the main character and the other, his counterfoil so to speak, are engaged in conversation with a very elderly gentleman, a Catholic layman who had had extensive parliamentary experience in the House of Commons during the greater part of the then as yet coming 20th century (one hundred years ahead of the time when the novel was written).
Thanks to what we may glean from their conversation, the time setting would seem to be in the early years of the present 21st century, our own times. England, like most countries, had become socialist, though as yet a benign and decent socialism still reflecting most of the better qualities of the late 19th century. But on the wider stage the world at large is divided into three major power groups: the East, Western Europe and its dependencies, and the West, the United States.
Christianity has withered away in the course of the 20th century and confessed Catholics are now only a struggling minority, though in the case of its protagonists still a vital committed force. As the story develops we learn that some short time earlier the Pope of the time, one Pope John, Papa Angelicus, has come to terms with the governments of Europe that by surrendering all Catholic holdings in Italy, the Church has exclusive control of the Old City of Rome (cf page 133).
But a new figure has come upon the scene: a strangely charismatic factor emerging from nowhere anyone seems to know, who has made his debut on the American political scene (pages 50-51) and is now moving through the Eastern bloc bringing all competing nations and peoples there into concord and agreement by his strangely charismatic powers.
The more immediate human aspects of the story begin to develop as we are introduced to a very proper married couple, devoid of any religious allegiance or sensitivity, but despite this a devoted and high-minded couple, the husband an upcoming figure in British politics and his devoted young idealistic wife seeing in the coming of this new player on the world scene a harbinger of universal peace and concord.
It happens that the mother-in-law, a frail dignified old lady who, feeling that her end approaches, longs for the consolation of the faith which once was hers. At this stage the priest hero, one of those we had met in the introductory dialogue, begins to take centre stage: a Fr Percy Franklin of Westminster Cathedral who has attracted the attention of Rome by reason of his plain-speaking reports to the Vatican of the relentless decline of Catholicism in England.
By a strange coincidence this Fr Franklin very much resembles the mysterious Bringer of Peace to the World, one Julian Felsenberg, a contrast which becomes all the stronger when, as we learn some chapters later, Rome and all the world's Catholic hierarchy who are assembled in Council, have been destroyed by an air raid leaving only two aged cardinals whom Fr Franklin had been accompanying to England and Germany on business of overpowering urgency.
With the elimination of the world's Episcopal College, these two, the only surviving cardinals, elect Fr Franklin as Pope, who significantly takes the name of Silvester III. (For those who may not appreciate this choice, a Pope Silvester II (999-1003) presided over the turn of the First Millennium).
At this stage I leave the story to any readers who might be sufficiently intrigued to learn how the world, our world, moves inevitably to its end.
The theme this novel embodies is so admirably set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that one is tempted to think that one was consciously modelled on the other:
"Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ' mystery of iniquity' in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Anti-christ, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah in the flesh."
Certainly Cardinal Ratzinger, who helped write the Catechism, was quite familiar with the above novel.
A feature of Lord of the World which in retrospect becomes clearly evident is the sense of evil: the ultimate evil of worldwide apostasy, and the enthronement of Lucifer in the house of God (cf. St Paul 2 Thess 2:3 ff). All this is communicated without any highly coloured scenes of moral depravity: the central agnostic married couple around whom a large section of narrative develops are, each of them according to their moral insights, completely decent people.
The only concession made to depicting moral horror is the description of a rampant mob in London on the march to kill any Christian believers they can find (pp. 218 ff). Rather, what is implicit throughout the narrative is the sin of pride: in which Man "shows himself as if he were God" (2 Thess 2:40).
(In this respect how different is this approach from similar attempts to handle the same theme: e.g., Morris West's The Clowns of God (1981) or even Michael O'Brien's Father Elijah(1996).
Benson's Lord of the World, the prototype of this genre, occasioned considerable anxiety for some of its earliest readers who saw it as a contemporary parable. We, in the 21st century, might recognise an even closer resemblance to our times.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 24 No 11 (December 2011 - January 2012), p. 12
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