Luca Fumagalli

Robert Hugh Benson not only wrote great novels that continue to be read by Catholics around the world. Indeed, in his short life, which ended prematurely a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, he was above all appreciated for his extraordinary ability as a preacher, and this, curiously, despite his stutter.

Standing out among the best collections of the English priest’s sermons are Christ in the Church (1911) and The Friendship of Christ (1912), recently republished by the meritorious publishing house The Cenacle Press at Silverstream Priory.

Christ in the Church presents texts of sermons given by Benson in Rome, Kensington and Boston between 1909 and 1910.

The aim of the book, which in the author’s intention was only a sketch for a larger work which however was never realised, is to illustrate how only the Catholic Church can define itself as the true Church, desired and founded by Christ. The proposed arguments are followed by objections and responses and the Catholic position is defended against both the accusations of Protestantism and those of the modern agnostic world.

Christ in the Church begins with an explanation of the meaning of the Church as the bride and mystical Body of Christ and then demonstrates, through some examples, how Catholicism is the only form of Christianity that knows how to welcome and value all men, regardless of their nation of origin, social class or ability. In fact, in the Church there is room for both Peter and Paul, two very different men, and yet, for the love of Jesus, they preached the same Truth side by side and, in the same way, shared the fate of martyrdom. Other interesting topics exposed in this first part of the book are miracles – in which the Church of Rome seems to have remained the only one to believe – and the distinction between the human and spiritual component in it, the first fallible and corrupt, the second indefectible and pure.

What emerges is a Catholicism that is much more than the sum of its individual parts, transcending the mere aggregation of men. The Church is a great body in which Christ plays an essential role, he is its soul, the vital breath that connects and passes through all Christians who live according to his word.

In the remaining part of the book, through some characters and episodes of the Passion of Christ, Benson creates an interesting parallel with the current world. Judas becomes the modern apostate, Caiaphas the exponent of a religiosity that does not recognize the evidence of the Christian reality, Pilate is the liberal relativist and, finally, Herod is the feral man, tied to earthly passions and instincts. With these figures, just like Jesus, the Church is also forced to coexist and deal. The result is a struggle that is difficult, but, exactly as the empty tomb symbolizes, the Church of Christ goes through suffering to always obtain victory.

The Friendship of Christ is also a small volume consisting of a collection of sermons given by Benson in Europe and America between 1910 and 1912.

The presence of Christ in man is the main theme of the first section of the book in which the relationship with God is narrated in its most intimate and personal form. The nature of this particular friendship is told according to the perspective of eternity that characterizes it: the relationship with Christ is the only horizon towards which all earthly friendships tend. In fact, in every friend we find the face of someone who has lived together with people, who has become their neighbor and who, thanks to this profound relationship, has made his way into the heart of man. The result is a path of purification and enlightenment that progressively leads the friend of Christ to identify with him, to become one with him and to learn to look at reality with his eyes. It may perhaps appear to be a renunciation of one’s individuality but it is, on the contrary, the only way to grasp the positivity of existence, the only opportunity to be authentically free.

In the second part the author, by contrast, recalls the extraordinary possibility that God has offered to men to literally encounter Christ, not as a metaphor, not as a now distant historical fact, but as a concreteness that can be experienced in everyday life through the Eucharist, the Catholic Church, the priest, the Saint, the sinner, the sufferer and, finally, the ordinary man.

Then considering Christ in his earthly life, in the third part the crucifixion is described as the most significant moment in history, in which God showed his friendship towards man, a love that even led him to voluntarily sacrifice himself and die, with a gesture of exceptional generosity, for the salvation of his creatures. In this paradoxical moment, the worst defeat coincides with the greatest victory, his resurrection and the hope of eternal life for man. Only the greatest friend could give up his life to save ours.

Buy the books:

R. H. BENSON, Christ in the Church: A Volume of Religious Essays, Cenacle Press, 2022


R. H. BENSON, The Friendship of Christ, Cenacle Press, 2022


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