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Source:
A Dictionary of Popes
Author(s):

J. N. D. Kelly,

Michael J. Walsh

Benedict XV

(3 Sept. 1914–22 Jan. 1922)

Born at Genoa on 21 Nov. 1854, the sixth child of an old though relatively poor patrician family, Giacomo Della Chiesa graduated doctor of civil law at Genoa University in 1875, then studied at the Capranica College and the Gregorian University, Rome, where he gained doctorates both in theology and in canon law. After ordination on 21 Dec. 1878, he trained (1878–82) for the papal diplomatic service at the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics where he briefly became a lecturer. From 1883 to 1887 he was secretary to Mariano Rampolla, then nuncio to Spain, assisting him not only in diplomatic business like the papal mediation between Germany and Spain on the Caroline Islands (1885), but also in organizing relief during a cholera epidemic. When Rampolla became secretary of state and cardinal in 1887, Della Chiesa remained with him, being promoted undersecretary of state in 1901 and continuing as such when Rampolla was succeeded by Rafael Merry del Val in 1903. He had hoped to become nuncio to Spain, but *Pius X, who suspected him of being a disciple of Rampolla, appointed him archbishop of Bologna in 1907. One of his tasks as archbishop, determined by Rome, was to rid his diocese of modernists. Della Chiesa, however, while stressing obedience to the holy see, expressed himself in sympathy with new trends of thought so long as they were tested against ‘the sense of the church’, and acted with prudent restraint. Because of opposition from Merry del Val, only in May 1914 did Pius name him cardinal, and three months later he was elected pope. Pius' death coincided with the outbreak of the First World War, and the choice of Della Chiesa was due to the recognition that in the crisis the church needed an experienced diplomat at its head. The choice is commonly presented as a surprise—he had only been a cardinal for a few weeks—but he was from the opening ballot a leading candidate.

Benedict's reign was inevitably overshadowed by the war and its aftermath, but the diplomatic isolation of the holy see as a result of the unresolved Roman question reduced any role he could play to one on the sidelines. While protesting against inhuman methods of warfare, he maintained strict neutrality, a neutrality which became all the more difficult to uphold after the entry of Italy into the war in 1915, something which Benedict had tried to prevent. He abstained from condemning any of the belligerents, with the result that each side accused him of favouring the other. In the early years he concentrated on alleviating suffering, opening a bureau at the Vatican for reuniting prisoners-of-war with their families, and persuading Switzerland to receive soldiers of whatever country suffering from tuberculosis. He was especially concerned about the welfare of children, and from the start gave strong support to the Save the Children Fund. From early in the war Benedict and his secretary of state Cardinal Gasparri were actively seeking to resolve the conflict. On 1 Aug. 1917 the Pope dispatched to the Allies and the Central Powers a seven-point plan proposing a peace based on justice rather than military triumph, but it was stillborn. France and Britain, regarding it as biased against them (as it was, in the current military situation), ignored it, while after an initial welcome Germany cooled towards it when the collapse of Russia made victory again seem possible. Benedict was undoubtedly attracted by Germany's offer to give Rome back to the holy see after defeating Italy, and dreaded Orthodox Russian expansionism in the event of an Allied victory. He was allowed no part in the peace settlement of 1919, the Allies having secretly (treaty of London: Apr. 1915) agreed with Italy that the Vatican should be excluded; in any case, he considered it a vengeful diktat.

After the war Benedict pleaded for international reconciliation (Pacem Dei munus: 23 May 1920), complaining that the peace treaty, and the League of Nations from which the Vatican had been excluded, were not founded on Christian principles. He worked to reconstruct church–state relations in the new states which had emerged, and sent Achille Ratti (later *Pius XI) as apostolic visitor to Poland and Lithuania in 1919; in 1920 he sent Eugenio Pacelli (later *Pius XII) as nuncio to Germany. He was concerned for the new concordats which the freshly drawn map of Europe made desirable, and devoted his last consistorial allocution (21 Nov. 1921) to this problem. His reign saw a notable rise, from fourteen in 1914 to 27 in 1922, in countries diplomatically represented at the holy see; they included Britain, which, to balance the perceived influence of the ambassadors of Germany and Austria, in 1915 sent a chargé d'affaires to the Vatican, the first since the 17th century. Relations with France, breached since 1905, were resumed and an ambassador extraordinary appointed in 1921; a helpful factor was Benedict's canonization of Joan of Arc (1412–31) on 9 May 1920. Benedict was unhappy about the Balfour Declaration of 1917, with the British commitment to building a Jewish ‘homeland’ in Palestine, and the subsequent flow of Jews to Palestine which appeared to threaten Catholic interests in the Holy Land. In 1915 and 1916 the Vatican expressed itself sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish ‘homeland’ being established in Poland. Although he himself found no solution to the Roman question, he prepared the ground for one. He put out feelers, through secretary of state Pietro Gasparri on 28 June 1915 and Cardinal Bonaventura Cerretti in Paris in June 1919, which signalled the Vatican's readiness for an honourable settlement, gave his blessing to the Popular Party founded by Dom Luigi Sturzo in Jan. 1919, thereby effectively abolishing the Non expedit, and lifted (May 1920) the Vatican's ban on official visits to the Quirinal (once the summer residence of the pope, but since 1870 official residence of the king of Italy) by heads of Catholic states.

On 28 June 1917 Benedict promulgated the new code of canon law in large part completed by Pius X; in Sept. he appointed a commission to interpret it. Starting with his first encyclical Ad beatissimi (1 Nov. 1914), he successfully called a halt to the bitter animosity between diehard traditionalists and modernists, a legacy of Pius X's suppression of Modernism, and one of his first acts was to demote Umberto Benigni, the head of the anti-Modernist spy network, the Sodalicium pianum. Like other popes, he dreamed of reunion with the separated churches of the east, and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution made him think that the moment for this had arrived. To assist the process he established (1 May 1917) the Congregation for the Oriental Church, and set up (15 Oct. 1917) the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome; on 5 Oct. 1920 he declared St Ephraem, the Syrian exegete and theologian (c.306–73), a doctor of the church. The war created a host of problems in the mission field, and Benedict came to be called ‘the pope of missions’, partly because of his constructive interest in them but also because of his letter Maximum illud (30 Nov. 1919), in which he urged missionary bishops to push forward with the formation of a native clergy, and to seek the welfare of the people among whom they worked, not the imperialist interest of their own country of origin.

Though never, since childhood, in robust health, Benedict died unexpectedly early, at the age of 67, of an untreated influenza which developed into pneumonia. Two years before, the Turks had erected a statue of him (by Canarica) in Istanbul which saluted him as ‘the great pope of the world tragedy…the benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion’.

Further Reading

AAS 6–14Find This Resource

H. E. G. Rope, Benedict XV: The Pope of Peace (London, 1941)Find This Resource

F. Hayward, Un Pape méconnu: Benoît XV (Tournai, 1955)Find This Resource

W. H. Peters, The Life of Benedict XV (Milwaukee, 1959)Find This Resource

P. Piffl, ‘The Conclaves of Benedict XV and Pius XI’, Tablet, 217 (1963), 1004–6, 1028 f., 1059–61Find This Resource

Schmidlin iii. 179–339Find This Resource

DHGE viii. 167–72 (E. de Moreau)Find This Resource

DBI viii. 408–17 (G. de Rosa)Find This Resource

EC ii. 1285–94 (G. Della Torre)Find This Resource

Histoire xii. 13–18Find This Resource

Levillain i. 172–7 (F. Jankowiak)Find This Resource

NCE ii. 248–50. (J. Hitchcock)Find This Resource

J. Pollard, Benedict XV: The Unknown Pope and the Pursuit of Peace (London, 1999)Find This Resource

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