Pope Francis' Apocalyptic Vision & the Anti-Christ in Benson's Lord of the World

By Patrick Ryan Cooper

As a young Catholic theologian with relatively few laurels to rest upon, I nevertheless consider myself wise enough to have critically eschewed the media's partisan Doppelgänger portrait of Pope Francis, preferring instead to pay close attention to what the Holy Father himself has said and done over these utterly remarkable and unprecedented first few years of his papacy. Given the tired and woeful inadequacy of labels such as "right/left", or "traditionalist/progressive", how should we understand Pope Francis? Perhaps we should look at his library and the book recommendations that he has made as Pontiff.  After all, it was at his very first Angelus (March 17, 2013) that Francis would recommend Cardinal Kasper's work on "mercy" – and we all know the centrality this theme has taken, and how it continues to play itself out, in both the Extraordinary and upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family later this year.

However, there is another trajectory to Francis, one that is clearly less-publicized, though arguably just as relevant and defining. Veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen  captured it in his interview (November 17, 2014) with the ailing Archbishop emeritus of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, wherein George notes that

It’s interesting to me that this pope talks about that novel, “Lord of the World.” That’s one thing I want to ask him. How do you put together what you’re doing with what you say is the hermeneutical interpretation of your ministry, which is this eschatological vision that the anti-Christ is with us? Do you believe that? I would love to ask the Holy Father. What does that mean? In a sense, maybe it explains why he seems to be in a hurry. Nobody seems interested in that but I find it fascinating, because I found the book fascinating. I read it quite by chance when I was in high school. It was written in 1907, and he has air travel, he has everything modern. It’s really eerie because it seems as if he was looking at our time, meaning right now. Does the pope believe that?....I hope before I die I’ll have the chance to ask him: How do you want us to understand your ministry, when you put that before us as a key?[1]

On more than one occasion[2], Francis has indeed referenced Benson's dystopian novel, which today is largely forgotten (illustrated by the fact that the only extant copy available for my recent purchase was a cheap, photographic imprint edition). Most notably, this past January, Francis cited Benson as providing the key to explaining what he means by the "ideological colonisation of the family". "There is a book that was written in London in 1903, called “Lord of the World”, by Benson: I recommend it to you" Francis said to reporters upon his return trip from the Philippines. "If you read it you’ll really understand what I’m talking about.”[3] However, Francis' comments about "ideological colonisation" specifically in terms of the family are largely enigmatic. For Benson pays little attention to the state of the family (or gender theories) in his apocalyptic drama. Rather, the forced association that Francis is communicating by such references appears to have another intention: namely, as code for speaking about the "Anti-Christ" within  public media, cleverly without mentioning the word itself, as well as communicating something fundamental about himself and his papacy. So what then is Lord of the World all about?

Benson's apocalyptic novel itself takes place at the dawn of the 21st Century and it begins amid fierce tension and the threat of cataclysmic war. Then all of a sudden, a relatively unknown junior senator from Vermont, Julian Felsenburgh quickly and extraordinarily emerges upon the world political stage, brokers a peace within Asia's rival factions and thereafter Europe. Benson's prose relishes in describing the messianic enthusiasm that engulfs the various world capitals, in particular London, describing at one point how the "officials were like men possessed….disappear[ing] in the rush to the City, for it had leaked out, in spite of the Government's precautions, that Paul's House, known once as St. Paul's Cathedral, was to be the scene of Felsenburgh's reception." Amid its apocalyptic frenzy and frequent hyperbole, the humor of Benson's satirical edge should not be forgotten, for it was 'Paul's House' that welcomed with open arms none other than the Anti-Christ Felsenburgh himself. We should recall that Benson himself was the son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and was initially ordained as an Anglican, before leaving and eventually becoming ordained in the Roman Catholic Church in 1904.

One of the central themes to Lord of the World is the manner in which evil insidiously apes the good, while aiming to show the very messianism at work with the Anti-Christ and the perverse simulacra atheistic humanism supplies as a (to use Benson's very post-modern sounding phrase) "Catholicism without Christianity". Benson endlessly exploits this familiar genre thematic, where emergency "ministers of Euthanasia" are now regarded as the "real Priests" of mercy and compassion, while he particularly excels in describing the newly institutionalized mandatory worship that Felsenburgh inaugurates, along with the former Modernist-leaning Fr. Francis, who apostatizes and becomes Minister of Public Worship. Here, the natura pura of neo-Scholasticism reveals its own horrific monstrosity, as the new elite enthusiastically revels in such worship, displaying the "deepest instinct in man", while sacralizing the feasts of Maternity (not surprisingly, on January 1st) and Life (March 25th), in addition to those of Sustenance and Paternity, for "God was man, and Felsenburgh his Incarnation!"

But the most consequential demonic doubling the novel displays is to be found in the profound physical likeness shared between Felsenburgh and the novel's main protagonist, the English Fr. Percy Franklin—who later becomes a Cardinal and eventually Pope Silvester III after the full-scale destruction of Rome and the Church hierarchy. Like the relative obscurity of Felsenburgh, Benson's outsider protagonist Fr. Percy is indeed a very striking character, who equally becomes thrust in the middle of the action, only to ascend to the throne of St. Peter after the tremendous turmoil and persecution of Rome. Immediately contrasted by his more grandiose and monarchial predecessor, Benson continuously emphasizes how the newly ordained Silvester III is in every way imaginable a "model of simplicity". Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly should, for perhaps we can better understand not only why Pope Francis has such a fondness for this book, but furthermore, we can well speculate how he himself envisions the core of the Petrine office today as Servant of Servants, in addition to his own extraordinary ascendency as interpreted by this apocalyptic hermeneutic.

And now it was come to this. Christianity had smoldered away from Europe like a sunset on darkening peaks; Eternal Rome was a heap of ruins; in East and West alike a man had been set upon the throne of God, had been acclaimed as divine. The world had leaped forward; men had learned consistency…the social lessons of Christianity apart from a Divine Teacher, or, rather, they said, in spite of Him. There were left, perhaps, three millions, perhaps five, at the utmost ten millions—it was impossible to know—throughout the entire inhabited globe who still worshipped Jesus Christ as God. And the Vicar of Christ sat in a whitewashed room…dressed as simply as His master, waiting for the end.

And yet, while pushing aside all popular and heterodox accounts of apocalyptic foretelling, what in fact could be the theological significance in describing Francis' ecclesial vision as apocalyptic, as a "field hospital after battle"? To probe such depths, we would be wise to turn to the Notre Dame theologian, Cyril O'Regan, who over the last decade has steadily challenged (contemporary) theology's predilection in maintaining its "cordon sanitaire around itself to repel apocalyptic infection".[4] Instead, O'Regan insists upon the genuine urgency to rearticulate a distinct Christian apocalyptic vision, which alone can sufficiently corral both the retrieval of Christian identity otherwise fragmented by the "corrosive effect of the Enlightenment on Christian discourse"[5] as well as the insistence upon the praxis of justice as "specifically Christian paths of actions and forms of life that may very well exceed what is demanded by secular culture."[6] Such a "necessity", O'Regan reminds us, need not be merely "defensive" and suspicious of contemporary life nor triumphalist, but it certainly does demand an evangelical robustness, for "to speak the truth boldly (parrhesia) is a Christian imperative" and such a theological discourse is by his estimate, "becoming more rather than less imperative as a form of theology".[7] In closing, I would argue that Francis is indeed shaped by this imperative in countless ways amid a fragmented and perilous contemporary moment in which religious persecution and horrific images of martyrdom appear almost daily (i.e. "ecumenism of blood"). And so, we may well call his "vision of God" and that of the Church genuinely apocalyptic as he "suggests that there is much more to do than do enough, that witness even to the point of martyrdom is called for".


[1]See John Allen, http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2014/11/17/chicagos-exiting-cardinal-the-church-is-about-truefalse-not-leftright/

[2] See Pope Francis Homily 18.11.2013 and his reference to the "adolescent progressivism" of apostasy and spiritual worldliness, wherein he specifically mentions Benson. http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-lord-save-us-from-the-subtle-conspiracies-of

[3] See http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/francesco-filippine-38640/

[4] See Cyril O'Regan,  Theology & the Spaces of Apocalyptic, from The Pére Marquette Lecture in Theology (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2009) 15.

[5] ibid., 26.

[6] ibid., 126.

[7] ibid., 127.