It has been widely reported that one of Pope Francis’ favorite books is “The Lord of the World” by Robert Hugh Benson, the converted Catholic priest son of a former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. Francis made allusion to it and humanity’s infatuation with “adolescent progressivism” in a recent homily, and has been known to cite it privately quite a bit.
To better understand the pope, I recently read the little book and found it fascinating. If nothing else, it speaks to the complexity of a man the media seems insistent upon simplifying and caricaturing. His love for this novel might not fit the mold into which he’s sometimes shoehorned by those writing the headlines.
The work was completed in 1907 and was one of the first “dystopian” visions of the future which would gain popularity as a genre later in the 20th century. (Think “Brave New World,” “1984,” and “That Hideous Strength” meet Michael O’Brien’s “Father Elijah.”)
In its frightening vision of the future, a hyper-secular and technologically advanced culture, divided between three conglomerate regions – the East, the Americas, and Europe and Africa – have banished Catholicism to Rome and Ireland. (Remember that it was written before the creation of the independent State of Vatican City as we now know it in 1929.) The novel’s pope has preserved these cities of exiles by relinquishing control over the rest of the world’s individual churches, which have been destroyed or will eventually be turned into temples of worshipping humanitarianism and sexuality.
Into this globalized and socialist political situation steps Julian Felsenburgh, a charismatic and beloved human “savior” intent on establishing a one-world government. Attacks on Christian symbols and beliefs abound, and euthanasia is commonly practiced, even among the physically sound.
Many of the book’s predictions are compelling to reflect upon and startlingly accurate, not only in some of the critiques of contemporary culture for which it is best known, but even technologically: instant modes of communication, easy transatlantic travel, weapons of almost unimaginable mass destruction, even something along the lines of drones. Its prophetic vision extends to the increased devaluation of human life and the role technology can play in mass murder that was so evident in the death camps and killing fields of the years that would follow it.
Toward the end of the book, the government views the church as its only viable threat, and so the antichrist-like figure of Felsenburgh unilaterally passes a law that will present every inhabitant of the planet with the terrible option of denying God or being exterminated. I will not give too much away, but as you can probably imagine the last scene takes place on the field of Megiddo, often translated in English as Armageddon.
Undoubtedly, there are dimensions of the book’s portrayal of the global situation and especially of the papacy which are directly at odds with Francis’ pontificate. The Pius IX-“prisoner of the Vatican” experience was obviously still fresh in the Catholic European mindset during its writing and is echoed in a tone which really has no such place in the geo-political and spiritual reality of Francis’ papacy today. The regal relationship described between the papal protagonist and his dutiful clerical footmen are irreconcilable with Francis’ famous “common touch.” It is not, and he would not claim it to be, a perfect analogue to his life and office today.
Yet, the work is prescient in parts, an intriguing and addictive read, and, I think, telling in the fact that the pope apparently enjoys it so much and finds it speaks to his heart. I have always believed that you can learn a great deal about a person by looking at his or her bookshelves. Francis also loves Manzoni’s “I Promessi Sposi,” in English called “The Betrothed.” While I clearly prefer that classic Italian novel, Benson’s volume is, however, worth picking up from a used bookstore or downloading for next to nothing for some of its moving and genuine (if sometimes melodramatic) piety and searing critique of a population recurrently in love with the wrong Lord of the World.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.