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Papal Library

Benedict XV

by Catherine Frakas 02 Jan 2007

Benedict XV1914 - 1922
James della Chiesa born 1854
Benedict XV's reign was an overture to the reigns of Pius XI and Pius XII. Much that they achieved was initiated by him. But it was a muted overture. The first four years and two months of his reign were the years of the First World War. After the armistice Benedict reigned for three years and two months, a period which was one of exhaustion and then slow recovery from the carnage which had wasted so much of Europe.
Benedict was first a pope struggling for peace. He was elected, 3 September, 1914, by a consistory which included cardinals who were citizens of the contending powers, because he favored neither side. A native of Genoa, an aristocrat, with a lawyer's training, he had had curial and diplomatic experience, being secretary at one time to Cardinal Rampolla. Unusually small of stature, myopic and ailing in appearance, with distinguished manners but matter-of-fact and precise, without much geniality or charm, this pope never attained to the same degree of popularity among the faithful as did his predecessor and his three successors. He was, however, the soul of generosity and was loved for his kindness by his entourage and all who knew him well. As Archbishop of Bologna, soon after war broke out, he said: I should regret if any of my clergy should take sides in this conflict. It is desirable that we pray for the cessation of the war without dictating to Almighty God in what way it should end. So the cardinals picked on one who would stand apart. But he did not simply stand apart; he worked for peace, a true precursor of Pius XI and particularly Pius XII.
Five days after his election he spoke of his determination to do what he could to bring peace, and his first encyclical on 1 November, 1914 was concerned with this subject. Before Christmas he tried to persuade the belligerents to revive the Truce of God for the feast day. In 1915 he made another appeal. He expounded the principles which govern moral decisions about war. In August 1917 he circulated definite peace proposals to all the belligerents. There were rejected, both sides being now determined on an absolute victory.
Relations between the Italian government and the Vatican improved during the war, an assurance being given that diplomatic representatives to the Vatican of powers with whom Italy was at war might remain there. But the pope preferred them to reside in Switzerland. Benedict's foundation of a bureau for the exchange of wounded prisoners and the discovery of the missing was widely appreciated, and led to an increase in the number of states with representatives at the Vatican – Italy's absence from them was one factor leading to the wish of the Italian government to solve the Roman Question in the following reign.
When circulating his peace proposals in 1917, the pope had referred Victor Emmanuel III and this was the first formal recognition of the monarchy given by the Vatican. Pius X had partially relaxed the prohibition against Catholics taking part in elections in Italy either as voters or as candidates. Benedict went much further and encouraged the Sicilian priest Don Luigi Sturzo to form his Partito Popolare. It was not intended simply as a Catholic party–but it was organized by Catholics with a social conscience, and many joined it simply because they were themselves pious Catholics. The Church had yet to learn the full modern practice of a strict separation of the Church's moral and ecclesiastical authority from the public aspect of the political, economic and cultural activities of individual Catholics, except where these are grossly scandalous or sinful. For the moment it was at least a step forward that the whole political sphere in Italy was no longer taboo.
Benedict was in the line of social awareness stretching from Leo XIII to Pius XI and Pius XII. In March 1920 he wrote to the Bishop of Bergamo: Let no member of the clergy suppose that activity of this kind is something foreign to his priestly ministry because the field in which it is exercised is economic. It is precisely in this field that the eternal salvation of souls is imperiled.
Benedict was inclined to be friendly toward the Orthodox Churches and had a special concern for the Eastern Catholic rites, which was taken up by his successors, so that a visitor to Rome in the last two decades would often find the liturgy of one of the Eastern rites being celebrated, with special reverence, in one of the Roman churches, sometimes one of the basilicas. He founded the Oriental Institute and the new curial congregation, the Congregation for Eastern Rites. This was part of Benedict's general concern for missions everywhere. The world was on the verge of that material unification, in respect of communication, which we take for granted today. Benedict recognized the implications and wrote his mission encyclical Maximum Illud, from which both Pius XI and Pius XII quoted in their own mission encyclicals.
Benedict promulgated the new code of canon law largely prepared during the reign of Pius X. He canonized Joan of Arc, which was an occasion for re-establishing friendly relations with France. The bitter problems of action francaise he left to his successor. The war years and their aftermath were no time for promulgating the findings of Pius X which he himself had withheld. Benedict maintained, in principle, his predecessor's attitude to Modernism, but greatly softened its application. He himself was at one time suspected of heresy by the anti-Modernist extremists and he now discouraged the intransigence of the attitude known as integralism.
Possibly Benedict's most important act was to remove Msgr. Achilles Ratti from the position of prefect of the Vatican Library in 1918, and sent him as his personal representative to Poland. Without this, Msgr. Ratti would probably not have been elected pope four years later. Msgr. Ratti, aged sixty-one and a historian of repute, had spent all his professional life in libraries, being prefect of the Ambrosian Library at Milan before going to the Vatican. He had cultivated in his spare time a number of pastoral works, but he was first a scholar of a practical kind and a librarian with an international reputation. With exceptional insight Benedict, who met him often in his position at the Vatican Library, divined his remarkable gifts. There followed for Msgr. Ratti three grueling years in Poland, independent for the first time for over a century; here Msgr. Ratti was on several occasions in imminent physical danger. In 1921 he was promoted to be Archbishop of Milan where he was at Benedict's death on 22 January, 1922. A similar example of Benedict's perception is his selecting Eugenio Pacelli to organize the prisoner-of-war work at the Vatican, and subsequently sending him as nuncio to Munich. Two future popes owed their vital experiences in Poland and in Germany to Benedict's eye for talent.
*Disclaimer*—This biographical data is from The Popes edited by Eric John. Published by Hawthorn Books, Inc of New York. We have attempted to contact the publishing company which is apparently out of business. If there is a problem with using this material please contact the Project Manager

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