Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
A white figure sat in the green gloom, beside a great writing-table, three or four yards away, but with the chair wheeled round to face the door by which the two entered. So much Percy saw as he performed the first genuflection. Then he dropped his eyes, advanced, genuflected again with the other, advanced once more, and for the third time genuflected, lifting the thin white hand, stretched out, to his lips. He heard the door close as he stood up.
“Father Franklin, Holiness,” said the Cardinal’s voice at his ear.
A white-sleeved arm waved to a couple of chairs set a yard away, and the two sat down.
While the Cardinal, talking in slow Latin, said a few sentences, explaining that this was the English priest whose correspondence had been found so useful, Percy began to look with all his eyes.
He knew the Pope’s face well, from a hundred photographs and moving pictures; even his gestures were familiar to him, the slight bowing of the head in assent, the tiny eloquent movement of the hands; but Percy, with a sense of being platitudinal, told himself that the living presence was very different.
It was a very upright old man that he saw in the chair before him, of medium height and girth, with hands clasping the bosses of his chair-arms, and an appearance of great and deliberate dignity. But it was at the face chiefly that he looked, dropping his gaze three or four times, as the Pope’s blue eyes turned on him. They were extraordinary eyes, reminding him of what historians said of Pius X.; the lids drew straight lines across them, giving him the look of a hawk, but the rest of the face contradicted them. There was no sharpness in that. It was neither thin nor fat, but beautifully modelled in an oval outline: the lips were clean-cut, with a look of passion in their curves; the nose came down in an aquiline sweep, ending in chiselled nostrils; the chin was firm and cloven, and the poise of the whole head was strangely youthful. It was a face of great generosity and sweetness, set at an angle between defiance and humility, but ecclesiastical from ear to ear and brow to chin; the forehead was slightly compressed at the temples, and beneath the white cap lay white hair. It had been the subject of laughter at the music-halls nine years before, when the composite face of well-known priests had been thrown on a screen, side by side with the new Pope’s, for the two were almost indistinguishable.
Percy found himself trying to sum it up, but nothing came to him except the word “priest.” It was that, and that was all. Ecce sacerdos magnus! He was astonished at the look of youth, for the Pope was eighty-eight this year; yet his figure was as upright as that of a man of fifty, his shoulders unbowed, his head set on them like an athlete’s, and his wrinkles scarcely perceptible in the half light. Papa Angelicus! reflected Percy.
The Cardinal ceased his explanations, and made a little gesture. Percy drew up all his faculties tense and tight to answer the questions that he knew were coming.
“I welcome you, my son,” said a very soft, resonant voice.
Percy bowed, desperately, from the waist.
The Pope dropped his eyes again, lifted a paper-weight with his left hand, and began to play with it gently as he talked.
“Now, my son, deliver a little discourse. I suggest to you three heads–what has happened, what is happening, what will happen, with a peroration as to what should happen.”
Percy drew a long breath, settled himself back, clasped the fingers of his left hand in the fingers of his right, fixed his eyes firmly upon the cross-embroidered red shoe opposite, and began. (Had he not rehearsed this a hundred times!)
He first stated his theme; to the effect that all the forces of the civilised world were concentrating into two camps–the world and God. Up to the present time the forces of the world had been incoherent and spasmodic, breaking out in various ways–revolutions and wars had been like the movements of a mob, undisciplined, unskilled, and unrestrained. To meet this, the Church, too, had acted through her Catholicity– dispersion rather than concentration: franc-tireurs had been opposed to franc-tireurs. But during the last hundred years there had been indications that the method of warfare was to change. Europe, at any rate, had grown weary of internal strife; the unions first of Labour, then of Capital, then of Labour and Capital combined, illustrated this in the economic sphere; the peaceful partition of Africa in the political sphere; the spread of Humanitarian religion in the spiritual sphere. Over against this must be placed the increased centralisation of the Church. By the wisdom of her pontiffs, over-ruled by God Almighty, the lines had been drawing tighter every year. He instanced the abolition of all local usages, including those so long cherished by the East, the establishment of the Cardinal-Protectorates in Rome, the enforced merging of all friars into one Order, though retaining their familiar names, under the authority of the supreme General; all monks, with the exception of the Carthusians, the Carmelites and the Trappists, into another; of the three excepted into a third; and the classification of nuns after the same plan. Further, he remarked on the more recent decrees, establishing the sense of the Vatican decision on infallibility, the new version of Canon Law, the immense simplification that had taken place in ecclesiastical government, the hierarchy, rubrics and the affairs of missionary countries, with the new and extraordinary privileges granted to mission priests. At this point he became aware that his self-consciousness had left him, and he began, even with little gestures, and a slightly raised voice, to enlarge on the significance of the last month’s events.
All that had gone before, he said, pointed to what had now actually taken place–namely, the reconciliation of the world on a basis other than that of Divine Truth. It was the intention of God and of His Vicars to reconcile all men in Christ Jesus; but the corner-stone had once more been rejected, and instead of the chaos that the pious had prophesied, there was coming into existence a unity unlike anything known in history. This was the more deadly from the fact that it contained so many elements of indubitable good. War, apparently, was now extinct, and it was not Christianity that had done it; union was now seen to be better than disunion, and the lesson had been learned apart from the Church. In fact, natural virtues had suddenly waxed luxuriant, and supernatural virtues were despised. Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.
Percy stopped, he had become conscious that he was preaching a kind of sermon.
“Yes, my son,” said the kind voice. “What else?”
What else?... Very well, continued Percy, movements such as these brought forth men, and the Man of this movement was Julian Felsenburgh. He had accomplished a work that–apart from God–seemed miraculous. He had broken down the eternal division between East and West, coming himself from the continent that alone could produce such powers; he had prevailed by sheer force of personality over the two supreme tyrants of life religious fanaticism and party government. His influence over the impassive English was another miracle, yet he had also set on fire France, Germany, and Spain. Percy here described one or two of his little scenes, saying that it was like the vision of a god: and he quoted freely some of the titles given to the Man by sober, unhysterical newspapers. Felsenburgh was called the Son of Man, because he was so pure-bred a cosmopolitan; the Saviour of the World, because he had slain war and himself survived–even–even–here Percy’s voice faltered–even Incarnate God, because he was the perfect representative of divine man.
The quiet, priestly face watching opposite never winced or moved; and he went on.
Persecution, he said, was coming. There had been a riot or two already. But persecution was not to be feared. It would no doubt cause apostasies, as it had always done, but these were deplorable only on account of the individual apostates. On the other hand, it would reassure the faithful; and purge out the half-hearted. Once, in the early ages, Satan’s attack had been made on the bodily side, with whips and fire and beasts; in the sixteenth century it had been on the intellectual side; in the twentieth century on the springs of moral and spiritual life. Now it seemed as if the assault was on all three planes at once. But what was chiefly to be feared was the positive influence of Humanitarianism: it was coming, like the kingdom of God, with power; it was crushing the imaginative and the romantic, it was assuming rather than asserting its own truth; it was smothering with bolsters instead of wounding and stimulating with steel or controversy. It seemed to be forcing its way, almost objectively, into the inner world. Persons who had scarcely heard its name were professing its tenets; priests absorbed it, as they absorbed God in Communion–he mentioned the names of the recent apostates–children drank it in like Christianity itself. The soul “naturally Christian” seemed to be becoming “the soul naturally infidel.” Persecution, cried the priest, was to be welcomed like salvation, prayed for, and grasped; but he feared that the authorities were too shrewd, and knew the antidote and the poison apart. There might be individual martyrdoms–in fact there would be, and very many–but they would be in spite of secular government, not because of it. Finally, he expected, Humanitarianism would presently put on the dress of liturgy and sacrifice, and when that was done, the Church’s cause, unless God intervened, would be over.
Percy sat back, trembling.
“Yes, my son. And what do you think should be done?”
Percy flung out his hands.
“Holy Father–the mass, prayer, the rosary. These first and last. The world denies their power: it is on their power that Christians must throw all their weight. All things in Jesus Christ–in Jesus Christ, first and last. Nothing else can avail. He must do all, for we can do nothing.”
The white head bowed. Then it rose erect.
“Yes, my son.... But so long as Jesus Christ deigns to use us, we must be used. He is Prophet and King as well as Priest. We then, too, must be prophet and king as well as priest. What of Prophecy and Royalty?”
The voice thrilled Percy like a trumpet.
“Yes, Holiness.... For prophecy, then, let us preach charity; for Royalty, let us reign on crosses. We must love and suffer.... “ (He drew one sobbing breath.) “Your Holiness has preached charity always. Let charity then issue in good deeds. Let us be foremost in them; let us engage in trade honestly, in family life chastely, in government uprightly. And as for suffering–ah! Holiness!”
His old scheme leaped back to his mind, and stood poised there convincing and imperious.
“Yes, my son, speak plainly.”
“Your Holiness–it is old–old as Rome–every fool has desired it: a new Order, Holiness–a new Order,” he stammered.
The white hand dropped the paper-weight; the Pope leaned forward, looking intently at the priest.
“Yes, my son?”
Percy threw himself on his knees.
“A new Order, Holiness–no habit or badge–subject to your Holiness only–freer than Jesuits, poorer than Franciscans, more mortified than Carthusians: men and women alike–the three vows with the intention of martyrdom; the Pantheon for their Church; each bishop responsible for their sustenance; a lieutenant in each country.... (Holiness, it is the thought of a fool.) ... And Christ Crucified for their patron.”
The Pope stood up abruptly–so abruptly that Cardinal Martin sprang up too, apprehensive and terrified. It seemed that this young man had gone too far.
Then the Pope sat down again, extending his hand.
“God bless you, my son. You have leave to go.... Will your Eminence stay for a few minutes?”