The Great Pope of the World Tragedy


On April 27, 2005, only a few weeks after his election as successor to Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI held his first General Audience in St. Peter’s Square. The new pontiff used the occasion in part to explain one of the reasons for his choice of Benedict as his new name:

Filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving, I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke truthfully about his predecessor, for Benedict XV was a herald of authentic peace to a globe that had plunged itself into the cataclysm of World War I (1914-1918). Elected literally days after the start of global conflict—a war that Pope St. Pius X had tried to prevent—Giacomo della Chiesa proclaimed peace to countries determined to destroy each other and spoke words of warning that authentic peace must be more than retribution and the mere absence of war. Had the world listened to him, it is likely that the greater horrors of Nazism, the Holocaust, and World War II might have been prevented.

Trusted Diplomat, Zealous Pastor

A true pope of peace, Benedict XV is a model for all Catholics, especially Catholic apologists, who face the two accusations that the Church never does enough for peace on the one hand or that the popes have no business interfering in politics on the other. Pope Benedict stands as our reply—he spoke the truth of peace, and it was the world that decided to ignore him, to the sorrow of millions.

In 1854, the future pope was born at Pegli, a suburb of Genoa, Italy, to an Italian noble family. At an early age, he expressed a desire to become a priest, but his father considered it essential for him to study law first. A brilliant student, he earned a doctorate in law in 1875 and then, with his father’s consent, began studies for the priesthood at the Capranica College in Rome. He was ordained a priest on December 21, 1878 and was assigned immediately to the so-called Accademia Pontificia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici (Pontifical Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics), the training center for future Vatican diplomats.

After graduating with a doctorate in canon law, the young Fr. della Chiesa was sent in 1883 to Madrid, where he became secretary to the nuncio (papal ambassador) to Spain, Archbishop Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro. Four years later, Rampolla returned to Rome to be a cardinal and Secretary of State to Pope Leo XIII, and Fr. della Chiesa went with him. Over the next few years, della Chiesa served in a variety of capacities as a trusted figure in Vatican diplomacy. He was instrumental, for example, in bringing an end to a dispute between Germany and Spain over the Caroline Islands.

On December 18, 1907, Pope Pius X named Fr. della Chiesa the new archbishop of Bologna. Consecrated in the Sistine Chapel on December 22, 1907, he served as archbishop with a pastoral zeal that amazed the people of Bologna, who had expected a long-time Vatican diplomatic to be more concerned with Church law and administration. Seven years later, on May 25, 1914, Pope Pius created him a cardinal. It proved a significant appointment as the summer brought the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and the subsequent march to war.

Heaven Favors No Country

At the start of the fighting, Cardinal della Chiesa was outspoken about the Church’s need to be neutral in the conflict and to be ever at the service of the many innocent victims in the coming struggle. His words impressed his fellow cardinals, especially after the death of Pope Pius on August 20. In the conclave that followed, Cardinal della Chiesa was seen as an obvious choice, given his diplomatic skill and experience. The conclave opened on August 31, and on September 3 it elected him Supreme Pontiff; he had been a Cardinal for barely three months. He took the name Benedict in honor of Benedict XIV (one of the great popes of the eighteenth century). In recognition of the dire situation facing the world, he was installed not in St. Peter’s but in the Sistine Chapel, beneath the gaze of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Pope Benedict then took upon himself the enormous task of preaching peace to a world gone mad.

The pope began his pontificate by issuing an apostolic exhortation, Ubi Primum, imploring the combatants to come to their senses. This was followed on November 1, 1914 by the encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum in which he wrote:

On every side the dread phantom of war holds sway: there is scarce room for another thought in the minds of men . . . There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven? Yet, while with numberless troops the furious battle is engaged, the sad cohorts of war, sorrow and distress swoop down upon every city and every home; day by day the mighty number of widows and orphans increases, and with the interruption of communications, trade is at a standstill; agriculture is abandoned; the arts are reduced to inactivity; the wealthy are in difficulties; the poor are reduced to abject misery; all are in distress. (Ad Beatissimi 3)

Matching word with deed, the pontiff organized a massive relief effort to bring food and help to the innocent civilians and to help prisoners of war to contact their families. The young cleric put in charge of this mission was Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. The Vatican also became a tireless source of comfort for those seeking word about missing family members. A Missing Persons Bureau was set up in the Vatican, and nearly 200,000 requests arrived for help.

But Benedict also remained determined to find a negotiated end to the hostilities to prevent what he called "the suicide of Europe," even though his efforts made him increasingly unpopular—even in Catholic countries—where war was still embraced with fervor. He suggested a Christmas Truce to end "this disastrous year," but it found little support save in Germany, and his consistent stance of neutrality angered the Allies, who feared it might damage Italy’s resolve. Thus, the Treaty of London signed by the Allies in 1915 included secret provisions to guarantee that no papal peace proposal would be heeded. Both sides considered the pope to be a supporter of the enemy. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau charged Benedict with being a "German pope" working to craft a "German peace" while Erich Ludendorff, the powerful German general dismissed him as a "French pope."

Persistent Call for Peace

Undaunted by the contempt of the belligerents in the war, Benedict pressed ahead with his call for authentic peace. In August 1917, he issued a daring Seven-Point Peace Plan that called for an end to the fighting, the restoration of Belgium, arms reduction and disarmament, international arbitration to future conflict, and freedom of the seas for all nations. At its heart, the plan boldly asserted that "for the material force of arms should be substituted the moral force of law."

Irritated anew by the papal effort, the Allies again brushed aside the pope and carried on with the bloody fighting. Austria-Hungary reacted favorably (by this time the future Blessed Karl I was Emperor of Austria), as did Germany, without making any firm promises, as well as the provisional Russian government that had come to power after the fall of the Romanov tsars. The Allies, including the Catholic countries of France and Italy, turned to President Woodrow Wilson to act as their spokesman. He considered it better to ignore the pope at first, but as the plan found a growing interest on countries long exhausted from the ceaseless bloodshed, the American president replied forcefully. Wilson declared, "Every heart that has not been blinded and hardened by this terrible war must be touched by this moving appeal of His Holiness the Pope," but he then added with considerable acidity:

The object of this war is to deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government, which, having secretly planned to dominate the world, proceeded to carry the plan out without regard either to the sacred obligation of treaty or the long established practices and long cherished principles of international action and honor, which chose its own time for the war, delivered its blow fiercely and suddenly, stopped at no barrier either of law or mercy, swept a whole continent within the tide of blood, not the blood of soldiers only, but the blood of innocent women and children and also of the helpless poor, and now stands balked but not defeated, the enemy of four-fifths of the world. (Letter of Reply to the Pope, August 27, 1917)

The irony of Wilson’s answer in 1917 was that many of the pope’s very points had been made in previous years by Wilson himself. And the Seven-Point Plan included provisions that later found their way into Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were first enumerated in a speech the president delivered to a joint session of the United States Congress on January 8, 1918. The Fourteen Points included arms reduction, freedom of the seas, the restoration of Belgium, and an association of nations to guarantee future peace.

Wilson was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. Meanwhile it took great diplomatic effort to prevent the papal representative from being excluded completely from the Paris Peace conference of 1919. As it was, the peace conference culminated in the tragic implementation of the Treaty of Versailles and the crippling humiliation of Germany, and only four of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were ever adopted.

No Lasting Peace

Once more undeterred by the diplomatic insults and the derision of the Allies, on May 23, 1920, Pope Benedict issued perhaps his greatest encyclical, Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum, a final plea for international reconciliation. He wrote prophetically, "there can be no stable peace or lasting treaties, though made after long and difficult negotiations and duly signed, unless there be a return of mutual charity to appease hate and banish enmity" (1). Regarding the development of an international body for maintaining peace, the pontiff wrote in his 1920 encyclical:

Things being thus restored, the order required by justice and charity reestablished and the nations reconciled, it is much to be desired, Venerable Brethren, that all states, putting aside mutual suspicion, should unite in one league, or rather a sort of family of peoples, calculated both to maintain their own independence and safeguard the order of human society. What specially, amongst other reasons, calls for such an association of nations, is the need generally recognized of making every effort to abolish or reduce the enormous burden of the military expenditure which states can no longer bear, in order to prevent these disastrous wars or at least to remove the danger of them as far as possible. So would each nation be assured not only of its independence but also of the integrity of its territory within its just frontiers. (Pacem 17)

Pope Benedict also gave his blessing to the idea of a league of nations and the Washington Naval Conference (the first disarmament conference in history), but the last years of his pontificate began to see the fulfillment of his warnings to the world. Russia sank into bloody civil war, and the installation of the Communist government of Vladimir Lenin and the resulting massive famine prompted the pontiff to condemn the Bolsheviks, even as he supported international efforts to bring aid to the starving Russian people. Like his successors, he looked with great alarm at the possibility of an atheist Communist regime in power in the East. At the same time, he was concerned about the deterioration of social and political life in Germany, a crisis that led over the next decade to Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazis. More positively, the post-war developments brought improved relations with Italy, France, and Great Britain, but the Holy See was excluded from the League of Nations.

Benefactor of All People

Beyond his efforts during the war, Benedict did not neglect the other needs of the world and the Church. Although still technically a "prisoner of the Vatican" like his predecessors from the time of Pope Blessed Pius IX (when the Papal States had been seized by the Italian government), Benedict was beloved for his generosity and concern, especially toward the many poor families of Rome and across war-ravaged Europe. French anti-war writer and Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland was prompted to describe the Vatican as a "second Red Cross."

The pope was also responsible for several lasting achievements. The first was the codification of Church law that led to the publication of the Codex Iiuris Canonici (the Code of Canon Law) in 1917 and that went into effect in 1918. It remained in force until 1983, when it was replaced by the current code. He also famously canonized Joan of Arc in 1920 and beatified, among others, the Ugandan Martyrs, Oliver Plunkett, and Louise de Marillac.

Benedict also took the important step of recognizing publicly the place and immense contributions of the Eastern Catholic Churches. He did this first by establishing in 1917 the Congregation for the Oriental Church as part of the central government of the Church in the Roman Curia, and then by launching the next year the Pontifical Oriental Institute to promote Eastern Catholic studies.

Equally notable was Benedict’s commitment to the missions. Building on the progress made by his predecessors, the pontiff issued in 1919 the apostolic letter on the missions Maximum Illud, which encouraged the development of local seminaries in mission lands to foster vocations among native populations. His actions anticipated the growth of the Church across the world, and Maximum Illud was quoted by both Popes Pius XI and Pius XII in their own encyclicals on the missions.

After the onset of severe flu and bronchitis, Benedict XV died on January 22, 1922, at the young age of 68. Despite all of his gifts to the Church and the world, he remains a rather forgotten pope, overshadowed by the saint he succeeded (Pius X) and the giant pontiffs who followed him (Pius XI and Pius XII). Nevertheless, for those who know of his labors for true peace, he is more than the "Pope of the Great War." Catholics can point to him with pride as a champion of peace and hope even when both seem in sadly short supply. Curiously, one of the greatest tributes paid to him stands today in St. Esprit Cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey. After his death, a statue was erected in his honor with truly appropriate words of praise: "The great Pope of the world tragedy . . . the benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion."


Matthew E. Bunson is a former contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters, a moderator of EWTN’s online Church history forum, and the editor of The Catholic Answer.

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 6.