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Pope Benedict XV
Della Chiesa was born in Genoa, Italy, of a noble family. He acquired a doctorate of law in 1875, after which he studied for the priesthood and then the training school for the Vatican diplomatic service; most of his career was spent in the service of the Curia.
Mariano Cardinal Rampolla was a friend and patron, employing him as a secretary on being posted to Madrid and subsequently upon being appointed Secretary of State. During these years Chiesa helped negotiate the resolution of a dispute between Germany and Spain over the Caroline Islands as well as organising relief during a cholera epidemic. When Rampolla left his post with the election of Pius X, and was succeeded by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val,Della Chiesa was retained in his post.
But Della Chiesa's association with Rampolla, the architect of Leo XIII's relatively liberal foreign policy and Pius X's rival in the conclave of 1903, made the new ultra-conservative regime suspicious of him. He was soon moved out of the diplomatic service and the centre of Church power in Rome, on 16 December, 1907 becoming Archbishop of Bologna.
On 25 May, 1914 Chiesa was appointed a cardinal and, in this capacity, on the outbreak of World War I—with the papacy vacant upon Pius X's death on 20 August—he made a speech on the Church's position and duties, emphasising the need for neutrality and promoting peace and the easing of suffering. The conclave opened at the end of August, and, on 3 September, 1914,Della Chiesa was elected Pope, taking the name of Benedict XV.
His pontificate was dominated by the war, which he termed "the suicide of Europe", and its turbulent aftermath. His early call for a Christmas truce in 1914 was ignored, and though he organised significant humanitarian efforts (establishing a Vatican bureau, for instance, to help prisoners of war from all nations contact their families) and made many unsuccessful attempts to negotiate peace, his effectiveness even in Italy was undermined by his pacifist stance. The best known was the seven-point Papal Peace proposal of August 1917, demanding a cessation of hostilities, a reduction of armaments, guaranteed freedom of the seas, and international arbitration. Only Woodrow Wilson responded directly, declaring that a declaration of peace was premature; in Europe each side saw him as biased in favour of the other and were unwilling to accept the terms he proposed. This resentment resulted in the exclusion of the Vatican from the Paris peace conference of 1919; despite this, he wrote an encyclical pleading for international reconciliation, Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum.
In the post-war period Benedict was involved in developing the Church administration to deal with the new international system that had emerged.
In internal Church affairs, Benedict calmed the excesses of the campaign against "modernist" scholars within the Church that had characterised the reign of Pius X, though his first encyclical condemned errors in modern philosophical systems and no excommunicated scholars were returned to the faith.
Benedict also promulgated a new Code of Canon Law in 1917 and attempted to improve relations with the anticlerical Republican government of France by canonising the French national heroine Joan of Arc. In the mission territories of the Third World, he emphasised the necessity of training native priests to replace the European missionaries as soon as possible, and established a Coptic college in the Vatican.
In physical appearance, Benedict was a slight, rather sickly man (the smallest of the three cassocks which had been prepared for the new Pope in 1914 was still a good deal too big for him). His demeanour was aristocratic but kindly, though on occasion he could lose his temper. He was renowned for his generosity, answering all pleas for help from poor Roman families with large cash gifts from his private revenues.
In his private spiritual life, Benedict was devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the modern Popes was the most fervent in propagating the wearing of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, endorsing the claim that wearing it piously brings "the singular privilege of protection after death" from eternal damnation, and giving an indulgence for every time it was kissed.
Benedict XV died of pneumonia at the age of 67 in 1922. Although one of the less remembered Popes of the twentieth century, he deserves commendation for his humane approach in the world of 1914-1918, which starkly contrasts with that of the other great monarchs and leaders of the time. His worth is reflected in the tribute engraved at the foot of the statue the Turks, a non-Catholic, non-Christian people, erected of him in Istanbul: "The great Pope of the world tragedy...the benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion."
Pope Benedict XVI
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger chose Benedict XVI as his papal name following his election on April 19th, 2005. Many have commented that this choice was a direct nod to Benedict XV, and a signal that Benedict XV's views of humanitarian diplomacy, and his stance against modernism combined with a certain moderation, will be emulated during Benedict XVI's reign. It has been reported that Ratzinger alluded to the relatively short 20th century reign of Benedict XV as another reason of the choice.
- Vatican website: Benedict XV; texts of encyclicals etc.
- Benedict XV's five point peace plan
- New Catholic Dictionary: Benedict XV
- FirstWorldWar.com: Who's Who
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