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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hugh Benson’

Belloc, Benson and Knox: three renowned Catholic writers

In 04 Fr. John McCloskey on 2014/11/07 at 12:00 AM

Excerpted from a book review by Fr. McCloskey

Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) is another member of a group of important Catholic writers from the first half of the twentieth century. In his case, though, his premature death in his early forties meant that he has never become as well known as some of his more famous contemporaries, such as Msgr. Ronald Knox, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.

He is best known for his novels but in his time he was also a sought-after preacher.

Like Ronald Knox he was the son of an Anglican bishop, but in his case he managed to go one better in that his father was actually the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward Benson. His autobiography, Confessions of a Convert, which was originally published as a series of articles between 1906 and 1907 in the American Catholic magazine, “Ave Maria,” details his gradual progress into the Catholic Church.

Again, like Ronald Knox he went to Eton, but here too the conventional tenets and practices of the Established Church made little real impression on him. It was only after leaving Eton, and before going to Cambridge University, that he had what he describes as his first touch of “personal religion.” This came about through his fascination with the music and worship at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

But once he went to Cambridge he slipped back into indecision about spiritual matters. Despite this he decided to follow the “family profession” and become an Anglican clergyman; at this time, like many Protestants, he still harbored a deep suspicion of the Catholic Church. Thus his father ordained him in 1895.

Following his father’s death shortly after, though, he began to look at Catholicism more closely, especially after some time spent abroad in the Middle East; he came to realize just how small the Anglican communion was in relation to Christendom as a whole. Nevertheless, he joined an Anglican religious community, hoping this would calm his troubled mind, which for a time was the case, being professed in July 1901.

However, his worries and doubts resurfaced in 1902, as he weighed up the conflicting claims of Anglicanism and Catholicism. He discovered that this was an impossible task for him on an intellectual level, since he felt incompetent to decide which set of theological “experts” he should believe.

This led him on to the extremely important point that the true Church should be discoverable by everyone, even the not-so-clever, and that humility and singleness of motive were the most important elements in this search, an idea Benson was to stress in his book The Religion of the Plain Man. Catholic writers, and particularly Cardinal Newman, also influenced him in his famous Development of Doctrine.

It was principally by a study of Catholic claims in the light of the New Testament, though, that he came into the Church, being received by Fr. Reginald Buckler, OPo.p., in September 1903, the first son of an Anglican archbishop to become a Catholic in three hundred years, an event which was, naturally enough, something of a sensation. Shortly after this he went to study in Rome for the priesthood, being ordained there in June 1904.

He had already begun to write before this, but from this time on his literary career blossomed. He began to produce historical novels such as By What Authority? (1904) and The King’s Achievement (1905), in which the religious controversies of the Reformation period were explored. He eventually wrote twenty-seven books, of which seventeen were novels.

Up until 1908 he worked among the students at Cambridge, but then obtained permission to retire from pastoral work to concentrate on writing and preaching, tasks which fully occupied him for the remaining six years of his life. He was enormously popular as a preacher, giving Lenten sermons in alternate years in Rome and the United States, sermons that were responsible for many conversions.

The year 1907 saw the publication of one of his most famous novels, the futuristic Lord of the World. This was set around the year 2000 and is uncomfortably prophetic in describing some modern aspects of Church life, such as the diminishing of faith under the assaults of materialism, as well as developments including aircraft and euthanasia.

This novel was regarded as too pessimistic by some, and as a response, Msgr. Benson wrote The Dawn of All in 1911, a book in which the Church is seen as ultimately victorious. He also produced further historical novels including Come Rack! Come Rope! (1912), a romance set in the time of Elizabeth I and the English Catholic martyrs.

During the last few years of his life Msgr. Benson produced more modern works, most of which explore the problems involved in living up to the practices of Catholicism and the general search for truth in a sinful world.

He was appointed a monsignor by Pope Pius X, and died in 1914 due to heart problems brought on by overwork and pneumonia, being buried in the grounds of his home, Hare Street House, at Buntingford, near London. In his will he bequeathed it to the Archbishop of Westminster as a retreat.

©CatholiCity Service http://www.catholicity.com  Re-published with permission.

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