Giacoma della Chiesa had been a cardinal for less than three months when his peers elected him to the papacy in 1914. The skirmish that would come to be called World War I was only a few weeks old and church officials sought a change in tone and leadership from the diplomatic rigidity of Pius X. Choosing the name Benedict XV, the slightly-built Italian (called “Piccoletto” — “the tiny one” in the seminary), della Chiesa was to manifest an enormous impact on the continent and beyond.
Benedict strove to maintain Vatican neutrality throughout the war. His policies were so balanced that the Allies accused him of being pro-German and the Central Powers distrusted him as pro-Ally. Many of these diplomatic efforts at neutrality were met with stringent partisanship from either side. Yet he remained steadfast in his commitment not to engage in alienating policies toward anyone involved in what he saw as the “suicidal” hostilities.
In his Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, he decried the war, blaming it on “a pervasive moral decay which manifested itself in selfishness, disregard for authority, divisive class struggles and materialism….[Overall,] an analysis not so different from that offered by communists who saw war as the outgrowth of bourgeois greed” (Priest, Prelates, and People, 196).
His humanitarian efforts were extraordinary. His care for the poor was renowned and he tirelessly poured Vatican funds into efforts to aid and relocate the wounded and prisoners of war. Perhaps the most striking testament to his generosity was the statue erected in honor of his work on behalf of the marginalized and displaced in the Near East by Islamic officials in Istanbul. He continually sought peace among the battling factions and nations of the world.
Benedict was remarkably prescient in his appeal for reconciliation as opposed to vengeful policies upon the termination of the war in Paris. Today, it is widely agreed that the condemnatory treatment of German economic and political systems at Versailles prepared the soil for the even bloodier conflict which was to soak it in the following decades. “Benedict emerged from the First World War saddened at the pointless loss of life and the inadequacies of the peace settlement but with his personal reputation for even-handedness and altruism enhanced” (Priests, Prelates, and People 200).
He led the way on initiatives that were to influence the church for decades. He sent Achille Ratti and Eugenio Pacelli (two future popes, Pius XI and XII) on important diplomatic missions to Eastern Europe and Germany respectively. He also worked toward familiarizing the Western church with the East, founding the Coptic College and Pontifical Oriental Institute of Studies in Rome, as well as establishing a Vatican Congregation for Oriental Churches.
In 2007, the current pontiff noted how monumentally his namesake had contributed to the dialogue between the two lungs of the church, East and West, with both sides recognizing that “progress and their firmness in difficulties would have been unthinkable without the constant support they were able to draw from that oasis of peace and study that is the Pontifical Oriental Institute, a meeting point for scholars, professors, writers and publishers, some of the greatest experts on the Christian East.”
Benedict XVI’s profound link with his predecessor has always been acknowledged. Early on in his pontificate he commented, “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.”
Benedict XV canonized popular saints Joan of Arc and Margaret Mary Alacoque late in his life. He succumbed to pneumonia and died in 1922 at the age of 67. While somewhat underappreciated in the panoply of 20th-century popes, Benedict most certainly displayed a number of intrinsic spiritual qualities and level diplomatic actions that warrant his ranking among the greatest popes in history.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham.