Short n sweet: Read this book. It’s a quick read. If you’re Catholic, it will stir you in some ways (and if you’re familiar with the old liturgy, even more so) and dismay you in others. If you’re not Catholic, it will give you a glimpse into how the Church thinks even if, as is most likely and is the attitude of most of the people in the book, you end up thinking it crazy.
It is not for nothing that both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis admire this book. It is hard not to think of Benedict when reading about the Pope John of the first half – ancient, calm, clear, saintly and unbending on those things that cannot bend. Probably Francis wants that too, it’s just clearer with Benedict, who happens to look the part.
Lord of the World was written by Robert Hugh Benson in 1907 as a response (or so Wikipedia says) to the utopias of H.G. Wells. Seems Benson, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury who ordained him an Anglican priest and who nonetheless converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest, didn’t think that Roddenberry’s – oops, Wells’ – world of eugenics, euthanasia, atheism, communism and marriage as an easily voided contract would ultimately make people happy. Go figure.
The main speculative point upon which the story hangs and derives much of its power is the assumption that it all works – that, by eschewing God, family, individual rights and life itself in favor of a great brotherhood of Man in which individuals are subsumed as cells in a body, that the world obtains prosperity, peace and a happiness that, while not exceeding understanding, is pretty darn good. Benson’s point is that it is not in the failures of a materialist Communist utopia that the real evil lies, but in its successes. He was free to imagine this, as it had not been tried and found murderous and miserable – yet, in 1907.
It is always so nice to read English authors from the turn of the last century. Their command of English and elegance of expression is so often a pleasure, even when, as is the case with Wells, it’s snake oil they are selling. Benson doesn’t disappoint – it is often a beautiful book to read. One other impressive thing he does is write about the interior, spiritual lives of his characters, often at some length, describing the strictly indescribable without derailing the story.
Fr. Percy Franklin is a young priest in London in something like the 1990’s – 80+ years after the date the book was written. Fr. Franklin is intelligent, reverent and striking looking – his hair is completely white even though he’s ‘not more than 35’ years old. His duties are to write a daily report to his superior, the Cardinal-Protector of England in Rome. Things have gotten bad enough, and Church shrunken small enough, that the Pope has appointed Cardinal-Protectors to all the major areas of the globe. Their field agents are sharp-eyed and intelligent priests such as Fr. Franklin.
Oliver Brand is a member of the British government representing Croydon. As a charming, attractive and articulate man, he serves by giving speeches that promote the government’s positions while mocking his opponents into silence. He’s very good at it, and enjoys and is proud of his work. He lives with Mabel, his young and beautiful wife, and his mother in a house just outside London.
The story is told largely through the adventures, after a brief encounter, of Fr. Percy, Oliver and Mabel as the world unwinds around them. The world has fallen to communism, materialism, atheism and a general contempt for all things Christian. The Americas form one sphere or empire, Europe and Africa another, and the East a third. Peace and prosperity reign, with marvels such as high-speed trains and highways to everywhere and volors, which sound like Zeppelin/LMH-1 airships, by which easy and convenient world travel is possible. Prisons have been reformed to be more humane, the death penalty forbidden, and euthanasia stations established so no one need suffer either physically or psychologically.
In a desperate move, Rome negotiated the surrender of almost all local church property in exchange for the Pope’s sovereignty over Rome itself. Pope John then rejects most of the new technology in favor of a renewed search for holiness. Catholics from around the world move to Rome and its suburbs in order to be near the last bastion of Catholicism in the world and share in its life. The descendents of the royal families of Europe, laid low by the new governments, regain their Catholicism as they lose their temporal powers – they know themselves to be kings by the grace of God, and having lost their temporal kingdoms does not change that. Powerless earthly royalty surrounds Rome.
In defiance of the world, the Pope reestablishes capital punishment, on the grounds that, while life is sacred, it is not the most important thing, and those more important things can be defended unto death. Rome is a smelly anarchy – except it isn’t. It is a nursery of holiness.
When the story opens, England and all of Europe are anxiously awaiting news from the East. No wars have broken out in many decades, but perceptive observers know that, once the East has measured its own strength, that Europe could not hope to stand against it. Their only hope is that, somehow, the East might restrain itself or be restrained.
As tensions in the West mount over the threat of the East, an amazing figure appears from out of America – the mysterious Julian Felsenburgh. (1) Felsenburgh stops war and the rumors of war by sheer strength of personality, it seems. He goes East, gives speeches and holds meetings to each in his own language, and the impossible is achieved: peace not only among the three Great Powers, but among the ancient rivals of the East.
Spoilers after the break. Stop here if you have not read the book, and go read it!
- Had to run that through an anagram generator, as Julian Felsenburgh is hardly a name, let alone an American name, one would readily come up with. Best so far: SHEEN FULL ABJURING. Yep, I bet Archbishop Fulton would be throwing down quite some full abjuring at the Antichrist!
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