Book Review: “Christ in the Church” by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson

“She is authoritative. Yes, because her Master was.”

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I’m very happy to present readers with some pictures of books published by The Cenacle Press, which is a project of Silverstream Monastery in Ireland.

The Cenacle Press was only launched in the last couple of years, and while there are many reviews online, there are not many photos of the books themselves. Pictures like this are important in this day and age, when independent publishers, newly-typeset books and print-on-demand titles can be quite low quality.

I’m pleased to be able to confirm that the array of classic titles are high-quality editions.

Below is Mgr Robert Hugh Benson’s Christ in the Church – one of several titles from this classic twentieth century author. As you can see below, their paperbacks have crystal-clear fonts, and a very good design and overall aesthetic.

Even the backs of the books look good.

With that in order, let’s look at Benson himself – and this book in particular.

About Mgr Robert Hugh Benson

The Cenacle Press website gives us the following short biography:

“Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was educated at Eton and Trinity College.

“Drawn toward the High-Church tradition, Benson was ordained an Anglican priest by his father, but began to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church during a trip to the Middle East in 1896. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1903 and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood the following year.

“Amid his various ecclesial duties, he was a well-known preacher and a prolific writer, and his works span many genres, including science and historical fiction, contemporary novels, children’s books, apologetics, plays, poetry, and devotional material.”

Benson was also made a “supernumerary private chaplain” to Pope St Pius X, whence his title “Monsignor.”

He is most well-known today for his dystopian and apocalyptic novel Lord of the World, which depicts the coming of the Anti-Christ into a world horribly like our own. He also wrote a parallel novel called The Dawn of All, which is a moving (and sometimes amusing) depiction of what the world could be like if it accepted Christ as its King.

Several decades after the publication of Christ in the Church, Pope Pius XII wrote the following in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi:

“Christ our Lord wills the Church to live His own supernatural life, and by His divine power permeates His whole Body and nourishes and sustains each of the members according to the place which they occupy in the body, in the same way as the vine nourishes and makes fruitful the branches which are joined to it.”

The book which we are reviewing today is an inspiring collection of lectures explaining this very thesis, and thus proving, in an unusual way, that the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. In this, it is similar to another book by Benson called The Religion of the Plain Man – a brilliant pastiche of a man awaking to the truths of the Gospel, and ultimately being led to enter the Church. Given the quality of their books, it would be good if The Cenacle Press were to release an edition of this work in the future as well.

Many works written around this time have a very “ecclesial” emphasis, showing a particular focus on the place of the individual Christian within the life of the Church, which is Christ’s mystical body – outside of which there is no salvation. In this, we can see similarities with writers such as Dom Columba Marmion or Dom Eugene Boylan, albeit with different emphases.

The thesis of the book

At the beginning, Benson sets out exactly what he wishes to prove in the book:

“[W]hile Protestants find in the individual Life of Jesus Christ in the Gospels the record of the sum of all His dealings, and in His words “It is finished” a proof that Revelation is concluded and Redemption ended, Catholics believe that there is a sense in which that ending was but a beginning – an inauguration rather than a climax.

“[…] Catholics believe that the Church is in a real sense the Body of Christ, and that in the Church He lives, speaks, and acts as really (though in another sense and under other conditions) as He lived, spoke, and acted in Galilee and Jerusalem. Let me express that under other terms.

“[…] Catholics believe that as Jesus Christ lived His natural life on earth two thousand years ago in a Body drawn from Mary, so He lives His Mystical Life to-day in a Body drawn from the human race in general – called the Catholic Church – that her words are His, her actions His, her life His (with certain restrictions and exceptions), as surely as were the words, actions, and life recorded in the Gospels: it is for this reason that they give to the Church the assent of their faith, believing that in doing so they are rendering it to God Himself.

“She is not merely His vicegerent on earth, not merely His representative, not merely even His Bride: in a real sense she is Himself.”

Naturally this is a very striking thesis. But we have Our Lord’s own warrant for it in his rebuke to Saul for his persecution of Christians:

“And suddenly a light from heaven shined round about him. And falling on the ground, he heard a voice saying to him: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Who said: Who art thou, Lord? And he: I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” (Acts 9.3-5)

Benson acknowledges that this may seem as if it was “nothing more than a rather forced and metaphorical statement of what is really an impossible position to maintain literally – a presentation, possibly rather picturesque, but hopelessly idealistic, of a mere illustration.” But he makes clear that he means more than any of this. After expressing what he sees as the Protestant view of Christianity, he gives the Catholic view:

“Now, the Catholic idea is far larger, as it seems to me, and also simultaneously far more simple, as well as far more elaborate, than the Protestant.

“For the Catholic, Jesus Christ still lives upon earth as surely, though in another and what must be called a “mystical” sense, as He lived two thousand years ago. For He has a Body in which He lives, a Voice with which He speaks. As two thousand years ago He assumed one kind of Body by which to accomplish His purposes, so He has assumed now another kind of Body in which to continue them; and that Body consists of an unity of myriad cells – each cell a living soul complete in itself – transcending the sum of the cells and yet expressing itself through them.

“Christianity, then, to the Catholic is not merely an individual matter – though it is that also, as surely as the cell has individual relations with the main life of the body. But it is far more: it is corporate and transcendent.

“The Catholic does not merely as a self-contained unit suck out grace through this or that sacramental channel; the priest to him is not just a vicegerent who represents or may misrepresent his Master; a spiritual life is not merely an individual existence on a spiritual plane.

“But to the Catholic all things are expanded, enlarged, and supernaturalized by an amazing fact: He is not merely an imitator of Christ, or a disciple of Christ, not merely even a lover of Christ; but he is actually a cell of that very Body which is Christ’s, and his life in Christ is, as a matter of fact, so far more real and significant than his individual existence, that he is able to take upon his lips without exaggeration or metaphor the words of St. Paul – “I live – yet it is no longer I that live; it is Christ that liveth in me”; he is able to appreciate as no separatist in religion can appreciate that saying of Christ Himself, that unless a man lose his life, he cannot save it.”

The mysteries of Christ’s life

The body of the book considers the life of Christ, and shows how each mystery is lived today in the Church. The unusual apologetic method which Benson uses here is one that might appeal to those who would not grasp the more technical argumentation in other works. In fact, the presence of such persons already within the Church’s fold is an example which Benson uses, with reference to Bethlehem. Just as the stable and the crib attracted both the simple and the wise, so too are both classes found in the Church – and Benson concludes:

“[T]hese two classes, in fact, which, respectively, are not tempted to think that they know anything; and those who, by the acquiring of knowledge, have come to know that they do not know anything.”

Against this, he considers this in relation to the situation in other sects:

“It has, that is to say, one appeal to the educated and another to the uneducated; and this is not the case with Catholicism. Pasteur and the Irish applewoman believe precisely and exactly the same doctrines. All modern developments of Protestantism, now that they have had their chance, exhibit exactly the opposite to this characteristic of Catholicism. Episcopalianism in Scotland, for instance, and, I am given to understand, in America, is more or less an aristocratic religion, appealing to lovers of beauty and refinement, but having little influence upon the very poor. […]

“As for the Nonconforming bodies, in England at any rate, their influence is almost entirely confined to certain ranks of society which are not, for the most part, either the most highly educated or the least.”

Later in the work, he makes this point with even more clarity:

“We have seen the characteristics of those who accept and those who reject the claims that the Church makes; those who accept – the simple on the one side and the highly educated on the other; those who reject – the middle kind of intellect which has not learned enough to know the limitations of knowledge; and we saw how these classes corresponded with those who respectively accepted and rejected Jesus Christ.”

The most striking image in his work – which appears in a similarly stylised form in The Religion of the Plain Man and The Dawn of All – is that of the great, imposing figure of Christ, continuing to reign in the authority of the Church. Consider the following from Christ in the Church (also quoted by Fr John Kearney CSSP in You Are the Mystical Body):

“She is authoritative. Yes, because her Master was. She despises mere conventions, contradicts human laws, divides families. Yes, because her Master did. She turns the accusation of supplanting Christ into a claim to possess him in her heart, mind, and mouth. She welcomes the distrust of the world; because he said that she would be so distrusted.

“She is not afraid to gather up sinners and keep them, even though they pervert her policy and misrepresent her spirit; because it is her function to sweep humanity – dregs and all – into her net. She is not ashamed to count miracles among her jewels, because he said that his Bride should wear them.

“She rejoices in her self-control, the rigidity of her attitude, the subordination of every member of her being to her supreme will, because it is at his wish that it is so, that the world whom he loves, and for whom he gave Himself, may recognise her as Queen, and Himself as King.”


It has not always been easy to find a decent edition of this book, as it has been largely limited to print on demand editions. Although Forgotten Books reliably produce good editions, many others have been marred by poor typesetting. It is not always easy to know what to expect when buying such books. For this reason, it is great that The Cenacle Press are producing such editions.

The great problem with this book is that it seems to describe a Church which is all but unrecognisable to us today. Certainly the voice of authority mentioned above seems to have been holding its silence for a long time now. Benson himself addresses this idea in the text:

“That the Church is in one sense the greatest failure that the world has ever seen, is an obvious fact, from the very magnitude of her claims and the apparent smallness of her achievements.

“Not only does she not convert the hostile world as, it would seem, she ought to do if she were Divine, but she cannot even keep her friends faithful. Whole districts, countries and races that were once her lovers are no longer so.”

But even the failures which Benson describes seem different to what we face today. How should we make sense of it all?

Some today believe that the Church also mystically re-lives the life of Christ in a linear way through history. She will always be enduring a passion in some of her members, but it is suggested that she is currently re-living his passion in a special way – a way which does not affect just some of her members, but rather the Church herself, as a whole.

Whether this is a way of describing the final persecution foretold in Scripture, or a true view of history, or just an instinctive feeling on the part of some of the faithful, is neither here nor there. She certainly is undergoing a passion at this time – and probably the worst persecution that has ever been.

It would be impossible and blasphemous to suggest that the Church could truly die, but if she is experiencing a mystical passion, then perhaps she may also come experience what appears to be a death. Perhaps the severity of this passion will only get worse, until we hear what Benson presents as the perpetual cry of the Church’s foes:

“[I]t is assumed, almost as an axiom, that the Church of Rome is a completely dead and discredited body, that her day is over at last, and that there are left to weep round her tomb but a few feeble-minded or heartbroken mourners, to whom even the dead body of a religion that is past is more dear than all the promises and aspirations of a world that looks now in another direction for light and leading.”

And yet, as Benson writes near the end:

“[S]he is always discredited, always found out, always dying, always forsaken by God and man, even down to death itself; she is always being buried; she is always vanishing under stone and seal, always being classed by the world with every other form and system of belief that has passed or is passing into the grave.

“And yet she lives.”

Rather than lamenting the evil days in which we live, or losing faith in Christ and his Holy Roman Church, let us thank him for placing us at this unique, even if horrifying, time. Let us enter more and more into the mystery of the passion and his divine life, and await the glorious “resurrection” of the Church.

To this end, it is encouraging to see The Cenacle Press making this text more widely available and we urge our readers to take a look.

Further Reading

Selected titles by Benson:

Lord of the World

The Dawn of All

The Religion of the Plain Man

The Friendship of Christ

The King’s Achievement

By What Authority?

Come Rack! Come Rope!

The WM Review Articles (and others)

“To Love the Church is to Love Christ” – Fr John Kearney CSSp, 1939

Laetare Sunday and Love for the Church

How will the Church appear at the end of the world? Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ, 1894

How will we know the Church at the end of the world? Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ, 1894

Other relevant works:

Dom Columba Marmion – Christ the Life of the Soul

Dom Columba Marmion – Christ in His Mysteries

Dom Eugene Boylan – This Tremendous Lover

Guéranger – The Liturgical Year, 15 vols. See here for UK readers – although you may need to just order from the US link. A great edition was from St Bonaventure Press, (check here for availability). Available from Loreto Publications in hardback and paperback editions. Available on the iPieta app and currently being posted daily online.

Kearney – You Are the Mystical Body

Clérissac – The Mystery of the Church (and for UK readers). Online at the Bellarmine Forums.

Leen – The True Vine (and for UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

The Cenacle Press


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2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Christ in the Church” by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson

  1. Pingback: The silence of Passiontide and what it means as we prepare for Christ's death - LifeSite - Modern Christian

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