Benedict XV

Genoa 1854 - Rome 1922

Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista Della Chiesa was born in an aristocratic family of Genoa, the sixth son of the Marquis Giuseppe and Giovanna Della Chiesa. Particularly attached to his mother and brothers, he received much of his first school education at home, cause for his weak health. He continued his studies successfully in one of the best schools in the city and soon became the vocation to the priesthood. In 1875 he graduated in law and his father allow him to undertake the ecclesiastical career, enrolling him at the Capranica College and at the Gregorian University of Rome.

After having been ordained a priest in 1878 and having obtained two PhDs, it was crucial for Giacomo the meet with Monsignor Rampolla, prominent figure within the Roman Church. When this person became Nuncio in Madrid in 1883, he brought him to the Spanish town as secretary to the nunciature. In 1887, when Rampolla was appointed secretary of state and cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, Della Chiesa returned to Rome with him. In 1901 he became a papal undersecretary, with the title of "very reverend". Under the pontificate of Pius X, characterized by the struggle against modernism, Giacomo was sent to Bologna as Archbishop. Here, he fought against socialism, propagated in Emilia-Romagna in the period preceding the outbreak of the Great War, and carried out his ministry with charity and firmness.

On May 28, 1914, he was finally awarded the cardinal title. In August of that year Pius X died and in September the conclave was elected to nominate the new pope at a particularly delicate moment for the spread of hostilities. Della Chiesa was elected a pontiff by the name of Benedict XV, reflecting on the example and the ongoing quest for peace of the founder of the famous monastic order. The new pope immediately took over the Vatican's reins, but the ongoing war made his task difficult: most of his energies were used in an attempt to put an end to the conflict, always above the partes on fighting. Since his first public discourse, on September 8, 1914, he addressed to the peoples a request for peace and in his first encyclical, Beatissimi, examining the causes and consequences of war, underlining "the lack of mutual love among men." Thus, he changed the weight of the Holy See's international position in this period: the pope gained a moral point of view, cause of the considerable number of Catholics present in opposing deployments.

Benedict tried to oppose Italy's entry into the war in May 1915, worried about the spread of clashes and the fact that the Vatican was a host of a country that was no longer neutral. During the first year of the conflict, the pontiff went astray in military and civilian support of both parties. Many of the measures taken during the war, mainly aimed at relieving the suffering of the prisoners, to which he assured chaplains of all confessions and provided services of all kinds. The Pope's attention was also always addressed to the children and to the needy populations, to whom he was constantly busy grooming foodstuffs. During his pontificate, the efforts dedicated to the sufferers demanded the expense of a large amount of money, so that Pope Benedict led the Vatican to the brink of bankruptcy.

In his famous Peace Note of August 1917, where the war was called a "useless slaughter", there were concrete proposals to reach the end of the conflict and ensure a stable peace. However, the Great Powers responded coldly to the pontiff and didn't accept his invitation: the hostilities continued until November 1918. When the war ended, Benedict was not satisfied with the conditions of peace decided in the Versailles Congress because they were not compliant to the Christian principles of justice and charity.

During the pontificate years, Benedict and the Vatican intertwined diplomatic relations with many states and became a new force in international affairs. Also in 1919, Italian Catholics entered the political scene with the birth of PPI (Italian Popular Party) led by Fr. Luigi Sturzo. Since 1920, Benedict also witnessed the spread of fascism and violence. In January 1922, when the pontiff was on the deathbed, the country's political situation had become unmanageable and the movement was expanding in the provinces.

From a doctrinal point of view, with his Encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus of 1920, the pope stressed the need to make the whole Bible accessible to all the faithful. In the years of his pontificate he gave birth to the plan of a new universal catechism and promulgated the Code of Canon Law, which reinvigorated the authority of the pope and the Roman curia on the Church. He favored the formation and dissemination of foreign missionaries in the world, sought to assist the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite and laid the foundations for the future good functioning of the Church in Africa and Asia. His death for pneumonia came unexpectedly on January 22, 1922. A man, sometimes irascible but always charitable, had to deal with the dramas of an unprecedented world conflict. He left an indelible imprint within the Catholic Church and his path was characterized by a constant search for peace.

Bibliography:

Corni Gustavo, Fimiani Enzo, Dizionario della Grande Guerra, L’Aquila, Textus Edizioni, 2014

Pollard John F., Il Papa sconosciuto. Benedetto XV (1914-1922) e la ricerca della pace, Edizioni San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo (Milano), 2001