August 5, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: ‘The unknown pope,’ Benedict XV

John F. Fink(Second in a series of columns)

One of Pope Benedict XV’s biographers called him “the unknown pope.” Except for Pope John Paul I, who died after only a month after his election, Benedict XV is probably the least well-known pope of the 20th century. But his legacy of diplomacy and ecclesiology continue to this day.

He was elected pope on Sept. 3, 1914, a little more than a month after the start of World War I. Like his predecessors, Leo XIII and Pius X, he never left the Vatican after his election, considering himself a “prisoner in the Vatican” by the Italian government. But he immediately declared the Holy See’s neutrality in the war and, from that perspective, exerted all his efforts to mediate its end. He developed the Church’s doctrine on just war.

Benedict XV issued 13 encyclicals, and five of them concerned peace. So, too, did two of his three apostolic exhortations. In 1917, he issued a peace plan in which he defined war as “useless massacre.” However, it was rejected by both sides.

When the war ended, the Holy See was not invited to participate in the peace conference held at Versailles in 1918. However, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson met with Pope Benedict before the conference, the first time an American president met with a pope. (It would not happen again until the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.)

When his diplomatic efforts failed, Benedict turned to humanitarian initiatives to lessen the impact of the war, such as the exchange of prisoners of war and wounded soldiers, and delivering food to Europe’s hungry. The Holy See spent 82 million lire—about $8 billion today—aiding prisoners of war, and priests and bishops visited prisoner camps on the pope’s behalf.

All these efforts impressed at least one man, Pope Benedict XVI. He said, “I wanted to be called Benedict XVI in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War. He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace, and strove with brave courage first of all to avert the tragedy of the war and then to limit its harmful consequences.”

Benedict XV also realized that the Holy See had to do something to make its diplomacy more effective. Along with his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, and Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII), he increased the number of countries with which the Holy See had diplomatic relations.

At the beginning of World War I, the Holy See had diplomatic relations only with the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, both of which collapsed during the war. By the time Benedict died in 1922, the Holy See had relations with nearly all of the great powers, with the notable exceptions of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Pope Benedict XV also issued the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the first time that canon law had been codified. He might be “the unknown pope,” but his seven years as pope had a tremendous impact on the Church since his pontificate. †

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