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Robert Hugh Benson

 

 

Dates: 18 November 1871 – 19 October 1914

Nationality: English

Occupation: Priest, writer.

 

Benson was the youngest son of E W Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Educated at Eton and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was initially ordained by his father into the Church of England. Although his father had died before the events took place, Robert’s conversion and subsequent ordination as a Catholic priest caused a sensation. He had to endure some harsh criticisms, but said that these were exceptional and that “the charity with which I was treated by members of the Anglican communion in general simply astonished me”.

 

Benson wrote historical novels, including Come Rack! Come Rope! set during the period of the Reformation. He was broadly a contemporary of Ronald Knox, Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton. Another important influence on him was John Henry Newman. He was appointed a Monsignor by Pope Pius X, and died of heart failure in 1914.

 

 

Comments on converting to Catholicism

 

“I do not suppose that anyone ever entered the City of God with less emotion than mine. It seemed to me that I was utterly without feeling; I had neither joy nor sorrow, nor dread nor excitement. There was the Truth, as aloof as an ice-peak, and I had to embrace it. Never for one single instant did I doubt that, nor, perhaps it is unnecessary to say, have I ever doubted it since.”

 

“There seemed nothing within me at all except an absolute certainty that I was doing God's will and was entering the doors of His Church. I had no elevations of spirit and no temptations against faith or anything else; and this, I must confess, lasted not only through my reception and First Communion, but for some months afterwards. Even Rome itself, though I learned strange and astounding lessons there, sent very few emotions through me.”

 

“[A] friend of mine, now a priest also, told me that his supreme difficulty in making his submission was the thought that he must repudiate his own Orders. Up to that time he had been a Ritualistic clergyman, doing a devoted work among the poor in one of the great English towns and celebrating every day for years what he believed to be the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He told me that he almost dreaded his First Communion, because he was afraid that, since it was inconceivable that Our Lord could be more gracious to him than He had been at Anglican altars, he himself might be tempted to doubt the reality of the change. But the moment that the Sacred Host touched his tongue he knew the difference. He told me that never again after that moment did he doubt for a single second that hitherto he had received nothing but bread and wine, accompanied by unsacramental grace, and that this new gift was indeed nothing else than the Immaculate Body of Christ. He is, moreover, a middle-aged, unemotional man.”

 

“Dogmas such as that of the Blessed Trinity, sacraments such as that of Confirmation, institutions such as that of Episcopacy -- all these things can indeed, to the Anglican as well as the Catholic mind, be found in Scripture if a man will dig for them. But the Petrine claim needs no digging: it lies like a great jewel, blazing on the surface, when once one has rubbed one's eyes clear of anti-Catholic predisposition. The "One Foundation" declares that on "Cephas" He will build His Church: the Good Shepherd bids the same Cephas, even after he has forfeited, it might seem, all claims on his Lord, to "feed his sheep"; the "Door" gives to Peter the "Keys." In all I found twenty-nine passages of Scripture -- since then I have found a few more -- in which the Petrine prerogative is at any rate implied, and I found not one contrary to or incompatible with its commission.”

 

“It was not argument that did convince me, any more than it was emotion that impelled me. It was rather my being drawn by the Spirit of God towards a vantage ground whence I could look out and see the facts as they were.”

 

“I saw the mystical Bride of Christ, growing through the ages from the state of childhood to adolescence, increasing in wisdom and stature, not adding to but developing her knowledge, strengthening her limbs, stretching out her hands; changing, indeed, her aspect and her language -- using now this set of human terms, now that, to express better and better her mind; bringing out of her treasures things new and old, which yet had been hers from the beginning, indwelt by the Spirit of her Spouse, and even suffering as He had done. She, too, was betrayed and crucified; ‘dying daily,’ like her great Lord; denied, mocked, and despised; a child of sorrows and acquainted with grief; misrepresented, misconstrued, agonizing; stripped of her garments, yet, like the King's daughter that she is, ‘all glorious within’."

 

“I do not suppose that there is any Catholic alive who would dare to say that he has no difficulties even now; but ‘ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt’."

 

“I turned and looked again at the Church of England and there was an extraordinary change. It was not that she had become unlovable. I love her even now as one may love an unsatisfactory human friend. She had a hundred virtues, a delicate speech, a romantic mind; a pleasant aroma hung about her; she was infinitely pathetic and appealing; she had the advantage of dwelling in the shadowed twilight of her own vagueness, in glorious houses, even though not of her building; she had certain gracious ways, pretty modes of expression; her music and her language still seem to me extraordinarily beautiful; and above all, she is the nursing mother of many of my best friends, and for over thirty years educated and nursed me, too, with indulgent kindness. Indeed, I was not ungrateful for all this, but it had become entirely impossible for me ever to reverence her again as the divine mistress of my soul.”

 

“Cardinal Newman's phrase describes best, I think, my mental condition. I knew that the Catholic Church was the true Church, but I did not absolutely know that I knew it.”

 

“I had no kind of emotional attraction towards it, no illusions of any kind about it. I knew perfectly well that it was human as well as divine, that crimes had been committed within its walls; that the ways and customs and language of its citizens would be other than those of the dear homely town which I had left; that I should find hardness there, unfamiliar manners, even suspicion and blame. But for all that it was divine; it was built upon the Rock of rocks; its foundations were jewelled even if its streets were as hard as gold; and the Lamb was the light of it.”

 

The following is an extract from Benson’s Christ in the Church:

 

...A thousand years hence, if the world lasts so long, we shall have once more the same situation that we have now.

 

On the one side will stand human society ranged against her, in ranks and companies of which hardly two members are agreed upon anything except opposition to her. There will be the New Theologians of that day, as of ours; new schools of thought, changing every instant, new discoveries, new revelations, new presentations and combinations of fragments of old truth. And on the other side will stand the Church of the ages, with the marks of her passion deeper than ever upon her.

 

From one side will go up that all but eternal cry, 'We have found her out at last; she is forsaken of all except a few fanatics at last; she is dead and buried at last'.

 

And on the other side she will stand, then, as always, wounded indeed to death, yet not dead; betrayed by her new-born Judases, judged by her Herods and her Pilates, scourged by those who pity while they strike, despised and rejected, and yet stronger in her Divine foolishness than all the wisdom of men; hung between Heaven and earth, and yet victorious over both; sealed and guarded in her living tomb, and yet always and forever passing out to new life and new victories.

 

So, too, then as now, and as at the beginning, there will be secret gardens where she is known and loved, where she will console the penitent as the sun rises on Easter Day; there will be upper rooms where her weeping friends are gathered for fear of the Jews, when, the doors being shut, she will come and stand in the midst and give them

Peace; on mountains, and roads, and by the sea, she will walk then, as she has walked always, in the secret splendour of her Resurrection. So once more the wheel will turn; there will be ten thousand Bethlehems where she is born again and again; the kings of earth will bring their glory and honour to lay at her feet, side by side with the shepherds who have no gifts but themselves to offer. Again and again that old and eternal story will be told and re-told as each new civilization comes into being and passes away - that old drama re-enacted wherever the Love of God confronts the needs of men."

 

 

Further resources

 

Benson’s own account of his route to conversion may be read here.