Pope Benedict XV
With battle smoke hanging heavy over Flanders fields and Carpathian Mountains, the Cardinals realized that the next pope should be a diplomat. The man chosen was Giacomo della Chiesa, who took the name Benediet XV.
Giacomo della Chiesa was born at Genoa on November 21, 1854. He studied law at Genoa and theology at Rome’s Gregorian University. Ordained in 1873, he became a doctor of sacred theology in 1879. Giacomo entered the papal diplomatic service and soon caught the eye of the great diplomat Rampolla. When Rampolla became secretary of state, Giacomo joined him as a valuable assistant. In 1901 he was made under-secretary of state. Pius X continued him in this office until 1907, when he made Giacomo archbishop of Bologna. Here Della Chiesa proved to be a capable and excellent spiritual leader. Pius X made him a cardinal in 1914.
Benedict XV faced a difficult task. As father of all Catholics he had to maintain strict neutrality. He succeeded so well that while excitable Allies called him pro-German, excitable Germans called him pro-Ally. Benedict constantly pleaded for peace, but not until 1917 did he judge the time ripe for a formal attempt to mediate between the Powers. Certain German elements welcomed the papal overtures, but after a good deal of excited buzzing and rumor mongering, it became sadly evident that not even the hideous blood bath of three years had brought either side to be really earnest in a desire for a fair and square peace. The Pope did his best to lessen the miseries of the frightful conflict. Thanks to Benedict, disabled prisoners were exchanged through neutral countries, and later, after weary efforts, Benedict succeeded in getting wounded and sick prisoners sent to recuperate in the comparatively well-off neutral countries. The Pope also tried to help suffering civilians. His intercession enabled deported Belgians to return home. He begged mercy for the poor Armenians, and he donated money freely to the suffering all over war-torn Europe.
After the armistice Benedict continued his good work. He pleaded with the Allies to stop the murderous blockade of Germany which was causing so much suffering to women and children. At the Pope’s command a collection was taken up in Catholic churches throughout the world to help hungry children.
Benedict urged Wilson to use his great influence for a just peace, but the Pope expressed disappointment at the results of the Paris Peace Conference. Although excluded from the League of Nations, the Pope praised the idea behind it, and at a time of excited nationalist hate, he pleaded for recognition of human solidarity.
In 1917 Benedict promulgated the great new Code of Canon Law but he gave the credit to his illustrious predecessor, Saint Pius X.
Influenza carried off this man of peace on January 22, 1922. Among his last words were “We offer our life to God on behalf of the peace of the World.” Rightly has Benedict XV been called “The good Samaritan of humanity.”
Until (seven years before his election as pope) he was named archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo della Chiesa’s career was spent behind the scenes. Naturally retiring, keenly intelligent but physically
unattractive, meticulously proper, the future Benedict XV could not match, nor did he care to, the dramatic image of the brilliant figures around him: Cardinal Rampolla, Leo XIII, Pius X, Merry del Val. Rather, in his office at the secretariate of state or elsewhere in the Curia, he worked quietly and competently in the background, always close to important events, seldom in public view. By their very indifference, della Chiesa’s anonymous years as a Vatican insider lend mute eloquence to his heroic dedication, self-effacement, and distant, but authentic, warmth. They reveal the man; and their recounting affords an excellent summary of epochal events in Church history.
The most important of these, as well as the most distressing, was the crisis of modernism. Much has been written of the legitimate severity of Rome’s initial reactIon to modernism. Less is known, however, of the ecclesiastical excesses which followed in its wake. Benedict XV’s courageous efforts to repress the self-appointed intellectual gestapo which had grown up within the Vatican (and whose narrow-minded zeal did not lack the support of such highly placed prelates as Merry del Val) is an exciting and important chapter in his life. His action in this senseless, deadly feud is characteristic of the delicacy and decisiveness of Benedict’s spirit.
When, in 1914, della Chiesa was named pope, World War I had already begun. The war and its hectic aftermath cast its shadow over his entire reign. Indeed, the pressing concerns of battle are perhaps one reason why Benedict XV has been so easily forgotten. An attentive study, however, of this great Pope’s personnal example, leadership, and papal administration, will reveal how blessed the Church was to have such a humble & warm hearted man in the Chair of Peter.
Della Chiesa at the time of his consecration as Archbishop of Bologna, December, 1907.
Della Chiesa as Cardinal-Priest of Quattro Coronati, May, 1914.
Pope Benedict XV, 1920.