“I am quite determined to become a Catholic; but I should like to have a hint of what that means.”
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As we read Benson’s account of what the Church has to offer weary Anglicans and other protestants, let’s relish the priest’s beautiful description of the Catholic Church, to which we have the privilege of belonging.
However, while this is our primary focus, let’s also ask whether this description is realised today – and what this might mean for the institution which many take to be the Roman Catholic Church, and for those whom many take to be members of her hierarchy.
Image: Robert Hugh Benson Wiki Commons CC
The Religion of the Plain Man
Fr Robert Hugh Benson
Burns and Oates, London, 1910
Chapter VII – The Exchange
“Father,” says John, after a few minutes explanation, “will you kindly preach me a short discourse on what I may expect to find within the Catholic Church? I am quite determined to become a Catholic; but I should like to have a hint of what that means.”
The priest looked at him a moment with out speaking. Then he leaned back and began.
“I am very glad, sir, that you have been courageous enough to come. I have known many Protestants who came up to the very door, and then turned back again. They did not ask themselves whether they did or did not believe in the Catholic Church; they only wondered whether they were justified in believing it. They are exactly like the man who said to Jesus Christ! that he must first go and bury his father; and, for all we know, he never saw our Blessed Lord again. No doubt after a few months the impression faded; he congratulated himself on having been so sensible and prudent; and his friends congratulated him too. But what a tragedy!
“Well, you want to know what we have to offer.
“Three hundred years ago we could have offered you great things: the hatred of all who heard your name; the contempt of those who were loudest in their love for England. We could have offered you the Tower as your prison, chains, stinking dungeons, the rack, the whip, the gallows, the hangman’s cauldron. Now we have no more than the chips of Christ’s cross to tempt you with; a little sneering and lifting of eyebrows; a little good-humoured laughter; a few remarks about intellectual servitude; a little smiling pity over your medievalism, your materialism, your lack of the sturdy British spirit, your superstition and your fear of the priest.
“I do not know your circumstances, sir; it may possibly be that you will have greater tokens of your Saviour’s love: He may be intending to raise foes for you out of your own household, to deprive you of your means of livelihood that you may learn to trust Him more entirely. He may be preparing the loss of all your friends and the contemptuous hatred of those who are dearest to you, that you may learn more perfectly the sweetness of His divine friendship. But, however that may be, you will not despise even those chips and pebbles from Calvary. He sends them you that you may remember that where the cross is, Christ is.
“In others affairs we have greater offers to make.
“In return for the sincere sympathy and advice of your cultivated clergy, which of course you will lose, we offer you the power of the keys so far as you need them for your sins. We cannot give you many university men as your spiritual guides, but I do not know that you will feel the loss of them very much. We offer instead priests of God. In return for the words said to you in the vestry, as you knelt beside your clergyman and told him your sins and he did his utmost to make the forgiveness of God a reality to your soul we offer you the authoritative Absolvo te a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti spoken with the authority of him whom Christ commissioned to open or close the gates of heaven. There is not the shadow of a question of a doubt as to this. You will find us far more abrupt and businesslike in these matters; we shall talk much less than your former ministers; we have no zeal to justify our claim, no need to stir the emotions; for, with us, both priest and penitent are utterly satisfied as to the situation. We offer you certitude in place of doubt and trembling hope. Remember, you have left glamour behind you.
“Then, for controversy we offer you peace. You will not find me opposing my bishop on a matter of doctrine or ceremonial; nor will you find our religious newspapers approving this or that prelate for his sound Catholic views.
“All this is taken for granted with us; indeed it seems to me rather strange that it should be necessary even to say so.
“You will not [as Anglo-Catholic laymen did] be required to make speeches about the advantages of confession, nor to listen to them, except perhaps occasionally from the pulpit. You will not be greeted as a champion of the Church when you profess yourself in favour of ‘non-communicating attendance.’ In fact, as one of our bishops once said to a complacent convert, you will have no position at all in the Catholic Church, except that of sitting below the pulpit and kneeling at the altar-rail.
“Please do not think I am sneering. I fully realise the good faith of your old friends. I know perfectly well that they believe that it is their duty to maintain and propagate Catholic doctrines; and I thank God that they do so, so sincerely and courageously. Of course I should like to see them all Catholics; but, meantime, I am extremely glad that they are disseminating the Christian faith so far as they have received it. I admire their devotion, their single-heartedness, their courage, more than I can say. They are fighting a losing battle against fearful odds, and one cannot but respect them for it. But it is necessary for you to understand that we are in quite a different position. It may be that you will think we are lacking in zeal; but you must remember that the occasional appearance of that rises not from our want of faith but from our supreme possession of it. We are so absolutely secure and confident that at times perhaps we do become a little unwary. But we have our prophets, as well as our geese, to give the alarm when the outworks are in danger. You will be a learner now, sir, instead of possibly a teacher; and in reward for that slight humiliation you will have peace instead of strife. You are a child at school again, not a scholar – ”
John nodded emphatically.
“That is precisely what I want to be, Father.”
The priest smiled pleasantly.
“That is excellent,” he said. “Well, to continue…
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“For your spiritual efforts we offer you sacramental communions.
“For the bread and wine received with faith and thanksgiving in remembrance that Christ died for you, we offer you the very Body that shivered in the manger and agonised on the cross; the very Blood that poured on Calvary for your redemption, adored by angels and desired by men.
“For your empty altars no doubt dear to you and consecrated by holy associations and times of refreshment and visions of God we offer you the very Shechinah of glory, brooding in the tabernacle that stands on every Catholic altar. You need no more question or doubt about this, or ask yourself whether the practice of reservation is in accordance with primitive practice. There it is! The Church sanctions it. Behold the tabernacle of God with men.
“And lastly, in return for the friends whom you may lose, who may become estranged from you, calling you renegade and traitor, we offer you the communion of a Church that knows no distinction of family or race or colour. You will have the Indians and the Japanese and the Italians and the French as your blood relations – blood-relations, for you are all born again from the same mother of salvation. If God takes away from you a few whom you have learned to love, He gives you in return many millions of other souls as your brethren in Jesus Christ. You will be one with the saints of all ages and lands. You need not trouble any more to decide between Aidan and Augustine; that matter has already been decided; and you may pray to whichever you please, or to both together without the fear of being historically disloyal to either.
“And we offer you more than this.
“In return for the earthly friends whom you lose, we offer you the restored friendship of all whom you have lost. You are not leaving the faith of your fathers; you are coming back to it. Your parents, who died, you tell me, twenty years ago, have been Catholics I firmly believe after all that you have said about them ever since you closed their eyes. They have been waiting for this, praying for this, desiring it with all their hearts. And now, please God, they are thanking Him for His grace and their son’s response to it.
“We offer you then, in a word, the saints in glory for your helpers and defenders; the holy souls as your brethren and intercessors, Mary as your Mother, Jesus Christ as your lover and God as your all in all.
“I know, sir, that you are sacrificing more than you will confess. I understand, perhaps even better than you do yourself, the agony of each fibre as it is torn up from the ground where it has grown so long, and you will find perhaps that the pain will be greater than at present you can conceive possible. I do not under-rate all this; in fact, I tell you plainly, that it will be worse than you think.
“But if I do not underestimate this, neither do I underestimate the reward that you will receive. I tell you that the Lord is more gracious than it is possible to imagine; that His Heart is too sweet for human language to describe; and that the Everlasting Arms have more power than you dream of. Therefore, while I think that you do not yet understand the sufferings you will undergo, as nerve by nerve is wrenched, and illusion after illusion dispelled, I am perfectly certain that you have not yet the slightest idea of all that God is preparing as your temporal and eternal recompense. I can only tell you that He will reward you as He alone can do.”
As John left the presbytery that night, a scrap or two of Scripture ran in his head like a song.
“Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem; and to the company of many thousands of angels; and to the Church of the first-born who are written in heaven; and to God the Judge of all; and to the spirits of the just made perfect; and to Jesus.”
“Behold the tabernacle of God with men.”
And as his heart swells in praise and thankfulness to God who has shown such loving-kindness, it becomes articulate at last, as he kneels, thrilling with a devotion that he cannot understand, and seeing a mystery that he cannot interpret.
“I am sure!” he cries within himself, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present, northings to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate me from the love of God.”
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