Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
Percy’s intuitive faculties were keen by nature and had been vastly increased by cultivation. He had never forgotten Father Blackmore’s shrewd remarks of a year ago; and one of his first acts as Cardinal-Protector had been to appoint that priest on the list of English correspondents. Hitherto he had received some dozen letters, and not one of them had been without its grain of gold. Especially he had noticed that one warning ran through them all, namely, that sooner or later there would be some overt act of provocation on the part of English Catholics; and it was the memory of this that had inspired his vehement entreaties to the Pope this morning. As in the Roman and African persecutions of the first three centuries, so now, the greatest danger to the Catholic community lay not in the unjust measures of the Government but in the indiscreet zeal of the faithful themselves. The world desired nothing better than a handle to its blade. The scabbard was already cast away.
When the young man had brought the four closely written sheets, dated from Westminster, the previous evening, Percy turned at once to the last paragraph before the usual Recommendations.
“Mr. Brand’s late secretary, Mr. Phillips, whom your Eminence commended to me, has been to see me two or three times. He is in a curious state. He has no faith; yet, intellectually, he sees no hope anywhere but in the Catholic Church. He has even begged for admission to the Order of Christ Crucified, which of course is impossible. But there is no doubt he is sincere; otherwise he would have professed Catholicism. I have introduced him to many Catholics in the hope that they may help him. I should much wish your Eminence to see him.”
Before leaving England, Percy had followed up the acquaintance he had made so strangely over Mrs. Brand’s reconciliation to God, and, scarcely knowing why, had commended him to the priest. He had not been particularly impressed by Mr. Phillips; he had thought him a timid, undecided creature, yet he had been struck by the extremely unselfish action by which the man had forfeited his position. There must surely be a good deal behind.
And now the impulse had come to send for him. Perhaps the spiritual atmosphere of Rome would precipitate faith. In any case, the conversation of Mr. Brand’s late secretary might be instructive.
He struck the bell again.
“Mr. Brent,” he said, “in your next letter to Father Blackmore, tell him that I wish to see the man whom he proposed to send–Mr. Phillips.”
“There is no hurry. He can send him at his leisure.”
“But he must not come till January. That will be time enough, unless there is urgent reason.”
The development of the Order of Christ Crucified had gone forward with almost miraculous success. The appeal issued by the Holy Father throughout Christendom had been as fire among stubble. It seemed as if the Christian world had reached exactly that point of tension at which a new organisation of this nature was needed, and the response had startled even the most sanguine. Practically the whole of Rome with its suburbs–three millions in all–had run to the enrolling stations in St. Peter’s as starving men run to food, and desperate to the storming of a breach. For day after day the Pope himself had sat enthroned below the altar of the Chair, a glorious, radiant figure, growing ever white and weary towards evening, imparting his Blessing with a silent sign to each individual of the vast crowd that swarmed up between the barriers, fresh from fast and Communion, to kneel before his new Superior and kiss the Pontifical ring. The requirements had been as stringent as circumstances allowed. Each postulant was obliged to go to confession to a specially authorised priest, who examined sharply into motives and sincerity, and only one-third of the applicants had been accepted. This, the authorities pointed out to the scornful, was not an excessive proportion; for it was to be remembered that most of those who had presented themselves had already undergone a sifting fierce as fire. Of the three millions in Rome, two millions at least were exiles for their faith, preferring to live obscure and despised in the shadow of God rather than in the desolate glare of their own infidel countries.
On the fifth evening of the enrolment of novices an astonishing incident had taken place. The old King of Spain (Queen Victoria’s second son), already on the edge of the grave, had just risen and tottered before his Ruler; it seemed for an instant as if he would fall, when the Pope himself, by a sudden movement, had risen, caught him in his arms and kissed him; and then, still standing, had spread his arms abroad and delivered a fervorino such as never had been heard before in the history of the basilica.
“_Benedictus Dominus!_” he cried, with upraised face and shining eyes. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He hath visited and redeemed His people. I, John, Vicar of Christ, Servant of Servants, and sinner among sinners, bid you be of good courage in the Name of God. By Him Who hung on the Cross, I promise eternal life to all who persevere in His Order. He Himself has said it. To him that overcometh I will give a crown of life. “Little children; fear not him that killeth the body. There is no more that he can do. God and His Mother are amongst us....”
So his voice had poured on, telling the enormous awe-stricken crowd of the blood that already had been shed on the place where they stood, of the body of the Apostle that lay scarcely fifty yards away, urging, encouraging, inspiring. They had vowed themselves to death, if that were God’s Will; and if not, the intention would be taken for the deed. They were under obedience now; their wills were no longer theirs but God’s; under chastity–for their bodies were bought with a price; under poverty, and theirs was the kingdom of heaven.
He had ended by a great silent Benediction of the City and the World: and there were not wanting a half-dozen of the faithful who had seen, they thought, a white shape in the form of a bird that hung in the air while he spoke white as a mist, translucent as water....
The consequent scenes in the city and suburbs had been unparalleled, for thousands of families had with one consent dissolved human ties. Husbands had found their way to the huge houses on the Quirinal set apart for them; wives to the Aventine; while the children, as confident as their parents, had swarmed over to the Sisters of St. Vincent who had received at the Pope’s orders the gift of three streets to shelter them in. Everywhere the smoke of burning went up in the squares where household property, rendered useless by the vows of poverty, were consumed by their late owners; and daily long trains moved out from the station outside the walls carrying jubilant loads of those who were despatched by the Pope’s delegates to be the salt of men, consumed in their function, and leaven plunged in the vast measures of the infidel world. And that infidel world welcomed their coming with bitter laughter.
From the rest of Christendom had poured in news of success. The same precautions had been observed as in Rome, for the directions issued were precise and searching; and day after day came in the long rolls of the new Religious drawn up by the diocesan superiors.
Within the last few days, too, other lists had arrived, more glorious than all. Not only did reports stream in that already the Order was beginning its work and that already broken communications were being re-established, that devoted missioners were in process of organising themselves, and that hope was once more rising in the most desperate hearts; but better than all this was the tidings of victory in another sphere. In Paris forty of the new-born Order had been burned alive in one day in the Latin quarter, before the Government intervened. From Spain, Holland, Russia had come in other names. In Dusseldorf eighteen men and boys, surprised at their singing of Prime in the church of Saint Laurence, had been cast down one by one into the city-sewer, each chanting as he vanished:
“_Christi Fili Dei vivi miserere nobis,“
and from the darkness had come up the same broken song till it was silenced with stones. Meanwhile, the German prisons were thronged with the first batches of recusants. The world shrugged its shoulders, and declared that they had brought it on themselves, while yet it deprecated mob-violence, and requested the attention of the authorities and the decisive repression of this new conspiracy of superstition. And within St. Peter’s Church the workmen were busy at the long rows of new altars, affixing to the stone diptychs the brass-forged names of those who had already fulfilled their vows and gained their crowns.
It was the first word of God’s reply to the world’s challenge.
As Christmas drew on it was announced that the Sovereign pontiff would sing mass on the last day of the year, at the papal altar of Saint Peter’s, on behalf of the Order; and preparations began to be made.
It was to be a kind of public inauguration of the new enterprise; and, to the astonishment of all, a special summons was issued to all members of the Sacred College throughout the world to be present, unless hindered by sickness. It seemed as if the Pope were determined that the world should understand that war was declared; for, although the command would not involve the absence of any Cardinal from his province for more than five days, yet many inconveniences must surely result. However, it had been said, and it was to be done.
It was a strange Christmas.
Percy was ordered to attend the Pope at his second mass, and himself said his three at midnight in his own private oratory. For the first time in his life he saw that of which he had heard so often, the wonderful old-world Pontifical procession, lit by torches, going through the streets from the Lateran to St. Anastasia, where the Pope for the last few years had restored the ancient custom discontinued for nearly a century-and-a-half. The little basilica was reserved, of course, in every corner for the peculiarly privileged; but the streets outside along the whole route from the Cathedral to the church–and, indeed, the other two sides of the triangle as well, were one dense mass of silent heads and flaming torches. The Holy Father was attended at the altar by the usual sovereigns; and Percy from his place watched the heavenly drama of Christ’s Passion enacted through the veil of His nativity at the hands of His old Angelic Vicar. It was hard to perceive Calvary here; it was surely the air of Bethlehem, the celestial light, not the supernatural darkness, that beamed round the simple altar. It was the Child called Wonderful that lay there beneath the old hands, rather than the stricken Man of Sorrows.
Adeste fideles sang the choir from the tribune.–Come, let us adore, rather than weep; let us exult, be content, be ourselves like little children. As He for us became a child, let us become childlike for Him. Let us put on the garments of infancy and the shoes of peace. For the Lord hath reigned; He is clothed with beauty: the Lord is clothed with strength and hath girded Himself. He hath established the world which shall not be moved: His throne is prepared from of old. He is from everlasting. Rejoice greatly then, O daughter of Zion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh, to thee, the Holy One, the Saviour of the world. It will be time, then, to suffer by and bye, when the Prince of this world cometh upon the Prince of Heaven.
So Percy mused, standing apart in his gorgeousness, striving to make himself little and simple. Surely nothing was too hard for God! Might not this mystic Birth once more do what it had done before–bring into subjection through the might of its weakness every proud thing that exalts itself above all that is called God? It had drawn wise Kings once across the desert, as well as shepherds from their flocks. It had kings about it now, kneeling with the poor and foolish, kings who had laid down their crowns, who brought the gold of loyal hearts, the myrrh of desired martyrdom, and the incense of a pure faith. Could not republics, too, lay aside their splendour, mobs be tamed, selfishness deny itself, and wisdom confess its ignorance?...
Then he remembered Felsenburgh; and his heart sickened within him.