Pope Benedict XV

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Pope Benedict XV

The Italian prelate Giacomo della Chiesa (1854-1922) reigned as Pope Benedict XV from 1914 to 1922. His pontificate was spent in dealing with the effects of World War I.

Giacomo della Chiesa was born at Pegli on Nov. 21, 1854. He studied at the University of Bologna and the Collegio Capranica in Rome and then became a papal diplomat. After 4 years in Spain he was recalled in 1887 to the Vatican Secretariat of State. In 1907 he was made archbishop of Bologna, in May 1914 he became a cardinal, and on September 3 of that year he was elected pope.

Benedict played no effective role in the war crisis. His predecessor, Pius X, had retired to a position of international isolation. Benedict, while condoning Austria's attack on Serbia as legitimate, tried to remain neutral. However, his belief that the fall of Czarist Russia would provide an opportunity for the expansion of Roman Catholicism weakened his neutral stance. On the other hand, he refused to accede to the Western powers' urging that he condemn German belligerence. Benedict's policy was also influenced by his desire to prevent Catholic nations from fighting each other. His attitude vexed the Allies, who saw it as a further frustration of their war effort against Germany.

Benedict did make an elaborate effort to mediate between the warring powers in August 1917. But the entry of the United States into the war on the side of the Allies and the consequent hardening of the Allies' attitude nullified his attempt. The Pope organized extensive relief services for prisoners of war and for the victims of the war's devastation, but in 1919 he was excluded from the peace talks.

In the aftermath Benedict adapted Vatican administrative machinery to the territorial and national changes wrought by the war and the peace treaty. He did eventually succeed in reestablishing diplomatic relations with France and Great Britain, but his hope of reaching concordats with the new states set up by the Treaty of Versailles was not fulfilled until the reign of his successor, Pius XI.

Benedict's influence was greater within Italy. He firmly circumvented the Integralist movement, and he fomented the Unione Popolare, thus laying foundations for the Catholic Action movement of the 1930s. Within the Church his emphasis of an indigenous priesthood enabled Pius XI to implement this idea. Benedict condemned the association of any missionary activity with imperialism. In the hope that the collapse of Czarist Russia and the emergence of new sovereign states in eastern Europe would lead the schismatic churches to rejoin the Roman communion, he founded the Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies in 1917. He died on Jan. 22, 1922. Although the main aims of his pontificate were unfulfilled, it may be said that Benedict laid the foundation for many of the policies carried out by his successors.

Further Reading

Two full-length studies of Benedict XV are Henry E. G. Rope, Benedict XV, the Pope of Peace (1941), and Walter H. Peters, The Life of Benedict XV (1959). For background material see Denis Gwynn, The Vatican and War in Europe (1940), and Carlo Falconi, The Popes in the Twentieth Century: From Pius X to John XXIII (1967; trans. 1968). □