Many have said Lord of the World is the Pope’s favorite book. Given today’s curious state of the Pope and the Church, there might be insights to gain from examining the story. I say might.
You’re walking along, minding your own business, the sidewalks are packed, and—wham!—a helicopter crashes right in front of you. You’re fine, but the dead and injured are spread hither and thither.
Nothing can be done for the dead, but what about the injured? You turn and notice men in white jump suits with medical bags rushing to the scene. How wonderful! A survivor smiles as a white-suited man bends over him and—zzzt!—puts him out of his misery. All in a day’s job for the stalwart Ministers of Euthanasia.
This scene is lifted from Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World. Only it wasn’t a helicopter, it was a volor, a kind of mechanical insect that Benson imagined would fly people from London to Rome…in a single day!
Benson’s book is an apocalypse, an end-of-the-world story. Just like the little-seen movie Penn & Teller Get Killed, which remained true to its premise, Benson’s book—here comes the spoiler—ends with The End. The world is vamoose. Gone. It’s outta here. It is no more. Finis. Buh-bye.
This is contrasted with modern apocalypses that always allow the Hero to stop the Devil in his tracks, at the last second, and so save the planet. Save it for what is never answered. None of that pussy-footing for Benson. He goes all out and imagines what it will be like when this world passes away, as it is promised to do.
The world in this book has progressed in the exact ways Progressives want this one to. Benson didn’t foresee our sexual decadency, but he nailed many other elements. Euthanasia is widely practiced, for instance. (He puts the end around 1998.) Transcendental religion is tolerated, barely and sneeringly, and practiced by a diminishing few. On the other hand, the religion of Man waxes: Man is seen as perfectible and nearing the goal of Perfect. Except that war is rumored between the East, a merged China and Japan, and the West. And this would not be a minor conflict, but a world-wide conflagration, because of the new “Benninschein explosives”, ja? One of these trinkets can level a city. Fear is in the air.
But one man, the mysterious white-haired thirty-three-year-old American polyglot named Julian Felsenburgh, has single-handedly brokered a peace, a negotiation “undoubtedly greater than any secular event hitherto known in civilisation.” This causes tremendous relief and the endlessly charismatic Felsenburgh is pursued and offered positions of great power, which he reluctantly accepts. Yet te rarely hear directly from Felsenburgh in the novel. He is a remote presence, not a real being; an inchoate force personified.
His influence builds as man turns ever inward on himself. The few who practice transcendent religion are ever more beleaguered. One religious doesn’t take this well and makes an attempt on a secular politician’s life. The newspaper blares, “Scratch a Catholic and find an assassin.” Soon there is another plot, but it’s uncovered in time. The world’s patience with transcendent religion ends. Another newspaper rhetorically asks, did not Christ come to bring “Not peace but a sword”? Volors are dispatched to Rome, now populated solely by the Vatican and religious refugees. Benninschein bombs fall. No more Rome.
Lord of the World is a Catholic book. No: that is a gross understatement. It is so thoroughly drenched in Catholicism holy water drips from every page. Notice I do not say Christian, but Catholic. Non-Catholic sects scarcely make an appearance; the same is true for Muslims, and there is only one Jew.
The hero, to abuse that term, is a humble priest, Percy Franklin, who rises through the ranks and becomes Pope (he was not in Rome when it was bombed). Franklin, who bears a striking resemblance to Felsenburgh, is a superhero without any powers save for introspection and supreme unshakeable faith. He spends many pages musing on the nature of man and God, always finding orthodoxy to be the right answer. He doesn’t care for the petty details, he wants all to know God. As the Church has done many times, Franklin anathematizes Freemasonary (Felsenburgh is a Mason) “as well as democratic ideas of every kind.” He sees clearly that “all the forces of the civilised world were concentrating into two camps—the world and God”. The latter become like Bedouins in the desert. But in the world, “Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.”
Franklin as Pope founds a new holy squad, the Order of Christ Crucified, made of “men and women alike.” Only the most devout make the cut. Many of the rest fall away or are killed; there is an apostasy of German bishops, and so on.
Apostasy? Felsenburgh restores “Divine Worship” and finds as eager volunteers German prelates to structure the new liturgies. Why? Because everybody recognizes the importance of ceremony and ritual. This worship is at first voluntary but soon becomes mandatory. Jail and painless death await those who won’t drop a pinch of incense into the fire. Germany forcibly ejects all Catholics. Parisian mobs burn Christians. Et cetera.
This is a grim tale and there are no smiles, with one small exception near the end when a newspaper announces National Worship:
There it all was—gigantic headlines, and four columns of print broken by startling titles 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.
Who is worshiped? Not Felsenburgh exactly, though he’s adored. No, it’s Man. The new liturgy stands the genuine Catholic one on its head (don’t forget this was the days of the old mass, which is now sometimes called the “Latin mass”; there were no guitars or clowns). As one character on her way to euthanasia camp thinks, “God was man, and Felsenburgh was his Incarnation!” And for “the first time in her life she became perfectly aware of what human nature meant…[Felsenburgh was] Man Himself speaking.”
Like Mao’s Little Red Book, Felsenburgh’s quotes were in the air. “To forgive a wrong is to condone a crime,” “It needs supreme faith to renounce a transcendent God.” Felsenburgh was savior, “the Son of Man for he alone was perfectly human; He was the Absolute…Eternal” and so on. “The human race was now a single entity with a supreme responsibility towards itself”. And hence should be worshiped.
Then came appalling weather, “earthquakes of astonishing violence”, islands disappeared. The ranks of Catholics were by then thinned out containing only disconnected small groups, but their mere existence was blamed for the misfortunes. The Pope, who had received a divine vision, was hiding near Megiddo and a traitor was dispatched to identify him with a kiss. The plot, which included Felsenburgh’s apotheosis, doesn’t have time to succeed. Why? Here are the book’s last words, which take place amidst the last mass [all ellipses except for the first original].
…and for the last time the voices sang…
…He was coming now, swifter than ever, the heir of temporal ages and the Exile of eternity, the final piteous Prince of rebels, the creature against God, blinder than the sun which paled and the earth that shook; and, as He came, passing even then through the last material stage to the thinness of a spirit-fabric, the floating circle swirled behind Him, tossing like phantom birds in the wake of a phantom ship… He was coming, and the earth, rent once again in its allegiance, shrank and reeled in the agony of divided homage…
…He was coming—and already the shadow swept off the plain and vanished, and the pale netted wings were rising to the cheek; and the great bell clanged, and the long sweet chord rang out—not more than whispers heard across the pealing storm of everlasting praise…
…GENITORI GENITOQUE LAUS ET JUBILATIO SALUS HONOR VIRTUS QUOQUE SIT ET BENEDICTIO PROCEDENTI AB UTROQUE COMPAR SIT LAUDATIO.
and once more
PROCEDENTI AB UTROQUE COMPAR SIT LAUDATIO…
Then this world passed, and the glory of it.
Catholics will recognize the allusions and the Latin.