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from issue no. 04 - 2006

Lay that is Christian

Benedict XV promoted charity, peace and the liberty of the Sons of God through respect for persons and for institutions. Fourth and final chapter of the rollcall of popes who have taken the name Benedict

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

The frontispiece of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis of 3 September 1914 with the news of the election to the pontifical throne of Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa

The frontispiece of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis of 3 September 1914 with the news of the election to the pontifical throne of Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa

After the last page of the pontificate of Pius X (1903-1914) «had been turned by an almighty and invisible hand», wrote the Jesuits of Études in September 1914, «we now find ourselves faced by another still blank page, the heading of which simply carries the name of a new pope: Benedict XV. What words, what actions will the history of the papacy record tomorrow? What will the blank page say?».
That page has been written now for almost a century, but it can’t have been easy to make out, if the biographies devoted to Giacomo Della Chiesa, who became Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), still speak of an unknown or even misunderstood pope.
«My appearance is against me», he himself wrote with delicate self-mockery, in a letter of 21 December 1898 to his former colleague at the Pontifical Academy for Diplomats Teodoro Valfrè di Bonzo (part of a precious correspondence published in 1991 in Civitas by the late lamented Giorgio Rumi). And it’s enough to look at his portraits, no matter how flattering, to understand that he didn’t have the physique du rôle. «He was of less than average height and somewhat stooped», wrote Francis MacNutt, another of his colleagues at the Academy, indeed, «everything in him was bent: nose, mouth, eyes and shoulders – everything lacked shape».
His curriculum also gives the impression of a mediocris homo, as Cardinal Agliardi was to say on the eve of Giacomo Della Chiesa’s election as pope. Diligent, certainly, meticulous, but a «mere bureaucrat», still according to Agliardi. Who would ever have imagined that there was a precise design for that “wee one”, as he was called in the Curia, and that in him there shimmered a flame of charity that in its time would prompt him to remarkable things? Yet the history of the Church should have taught and should teach that precisely keeping to the form handed down – the specialty of Giacomo Della Chiesa – has been decisive, very often more decisive than striking virtues, in safeguarding the essence of charity and of the Christian faith.
In contrast to his immediate predecessors and successors on the throne of Peter (with the exception of Pius XII), Giacomo Della Chiesa was a “townie”. He was born in 1854 to a family of noble ancestry and of bourgeois lifestyle in Genoa which, as those acquainted with it know, has been a city par excellence since the early Middle Ages: some of its ancient towers still compete with the modern skyscrapers that made their first appearance in Italy there.
His background was not only urban, but lay, so much so, according to some people who claimed to be quoting the words of Benedict XV himself, he couldn’t boast any particular theological competence. In effect he first graduated in jurisprudence at the University of Genoa, in the meantime attending courses in philosophy and theology at the local seminary as an external student. Courses that he was then to complete in Rome, at the Gregorian.
Giacomo, in fact, came to Rome as a student at the Capranica College, at the moment in which the Eternal City was adjusting itself to becoming the capital city of united Italy. He was to be ordained priest on 21 December 1878, in the very year in which, after a pontificate of unsurpassed duration, Pius IX (1846-1878) was succeeded by Leo XIII (1878-1903). In the two following years he attended the Pontifical Academy for Diplomats, the school of pontifical diplomacy.
The coronation ceremony 
of Benedict XV in the Sistine Chapel, 
6 September 1914

The coronation ceremony of Benedict XV in the Sistine Chapel, 6 September 1914

From diplomacy to the bishopric of Bologna
From that time on two names, both connected with the diplomacy of Leo XIII, were to mark the biography of Giacomo Della Chiesa more than any others: that of Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, the Secretary of State of Leo XIII, who for Della Chiesa was an extraordinary teacher and under whom he served his apprenticeship in diplomacy between 1881 and 1882; and another of rank equal to his own, his valiant contemporary Pietro Gasparri, appointed Secretary for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs in 1901 at the same time as the nomination of Giacomo Della Chiesa as substitute. Gasparri, who was then to become the intelligent Secretary of State of Benedict XV, was also his most significant continuator, holding that office during the subsequent pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939). «A fact almost without precedent in the history of the papacy», writes John F. Pollard in a recent biography devoted to Benedict XV. Yet Gasparri was, in terms of character, the polar opposite of Della Chiesa. At times – wrote Don Giuseppe De Luca in L’Osservatore Romano on 19 November 1952, in a very fine sketch of the “uncouth” cardinal on the centenary of his birth – «his contempt for the forms reached deplorable lengths, about which he was the first to laugh». What brought them together, therefore? I like to see the point of contact between the two, apart from in their scrupulous attachment to their respective office and a shared pragmatism, in a sovereign detachment from self. In fact, if Gasparri, De Luca writes in the same article, «was unceasingly suspicious of the strength that he already felt in his nature, and in that other power that he had in his hands as man of government, as if they were dangerous weapons», Benedict, mutatis mutandis, was no less so. It’s enough to read his words to the editor of Civiltà Cattolica at the crucial moment shortly before Italy entered the war: «One has to distinguish the personal opinions of the pope from what is essential for doctrine. Even his behavior as pope is not imposed on all. The pope is supranational: he doesn’t pray for the triumph of Italy; but if an Italian Catholic does so, he would not go against the pope. Thus he has never said that the war of this or that country is just or unjust». Words quoted by Father Sale in the recently published book Popolari e destra cattolica al tempo di Benedetto XV [The Popular Party and the Catholic Right at the time of Benedict XV].
But let us return to the cursus honorum of Giacomo Della Chiesa when he was not yet Benedict.
When Rampolla became nuncio to Madrid in 1883, he decided to take Della Chiesa with him and, later when he was called back to Rome as Secretary of State in 1887, he brought him back with him to the Curia as an official. Della Chiesa faithfully performed his task for a long time. And in 1901, as I’ve already said, he became substitute.
The record 
book of the Almo Collegio Capranica with the name and date of enrolment 
of the student Giacomo Della Chiesa. 
Note the later additions 
up to the date of his election as pontiff

The record book of the Almo Collegio Capranica with the name and date of enrolment of the student Giacomo Della Chiesa. Note the later additions up to the date of his election as pontiff

But during Leo XIII’s pontificate, with a speed considerably greater than that of Della Chiesa and Gasparri, though very much younger, another diplomat had been forging ahead, Monsignor Raffaele Merry del Val, who, at the closure of the conclave following the death of Pope Pecci – as recalled in these pages by Gianpaolo Romanato (cf. 30Days,this edition, pp.40-45) – was appointed Secretary of State by Pius X. To everyone’s surprise, including Monsignor Della Chiesa’s, who on 8 November 1903 wrote with many exclamation marks: «Tomorrow we will have the Consistory, shortly to be followed by the definitive nomination of the Secretary of State! who would have said so ten years ago!!!».
Rampolla was immediately sidelined. For a while Della Chiesa remained in his post, but he, too, at the opportune moment, in 1907, was sent elsewhere: to the archiepiscopal See of Bologna. Certainly he was sent there out of the esteem in which he was held, but maybe also to see how he would deal with a diocese till then led by Archbishop Domenico Svampa, suspected of modernist and Christian democrat leanings – for having protected among others Don Giulio Belvederi and Don Alfonso Manaresi. What Monsignor Della Chiesa wrote with his usual subtle irony in October 1907 to his friend Teodoro Valfrè di Bonzo (who believed he was on the point of leaving for the nunciature of Madrid) seems to confirm that the appointment to Bologna must not have been without such purpose: «I didn’t answer by telegram your courteous telegram of congratulations for my supposed nomination as nuncio to Madrid because I didn’t want to make a public denial of your supposition. The fact is that I have not been nor will be appointed nuncio to Madrid because the Holy Father wants me as… archbishop of Bologna. In this wish of the Holy Father I have recognized the will of God, because nothing was farther from me than the thought of the possibility of becoming archbishop of Bologna. I was shaken at the first announcement of the pontifical wish, and the thought of the difficult situation in which the poor archbishop of Bologna will find himself increased my distress: but the Lord who wants me in Bologna, won’t he give me the graces necessary to do some good there?».
In the years of his episcopate in Bologna (on which one may consult a highly documented volume published by Antonio Scottà in 2002) apparently the grace of his role sustained him, for not only did he act with prudence but also with pastoral charity, immediately engaging in a fatiguing visit of the diocese and interesting himself in catechistic training and in the seminary. As for the real or alleged modernists leanings, though he diligently carried out the dispositions coming from Rome – could he do otherwise? – he never lacked respect for people – which was all he could do.
With all that he was only created cardinal in May 1914, a few months before entering the conclave out of which he emerged pope. Maybe it’s no accident that the cardinal’s hat came only after the death of Rampolla, in the previous December. It was probably thought undesirable that the team should be reconstituted and have weight in the Sacred College.
In the meantime war broke out, the Great War. There are those who have said that because of it Pius X died of a broken heart, but also those who, like Pollard, claim that «he and his Secretary of State Cardinal Merry del Val contributed to hastening the war by wrongly suggesting to Franz Joseph that Austria was right and should humiliate Serbia». In any case, the majority of historians agree that in the conclave following on the death of Pius X more weight was given to the narrow internal debate between the intransigent current and the advocates of moderation towards the real or alleged modernist leanings than to consideration of the war that had just broken out.
Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro

Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro

The election as pontiff
Precisely because he represented this more measured position, Della Chiesa, though only nominated cardinal a few months previous, was among the papabili and became pope despite resistance from the beginning to the end of the conclave from those who wanted to keep the rudder on the course of intransigency. Even during his pontificate they created factional gusts all the more quirky when they blew from close to the Pontiff. The people involved were known as the “Little Vatican”. Again two months before the death of Benedict XV, Merry del Val wrote, criticizing him in a private letter saying it was necessary to «flee the tactics of human politics…. At a time when the world has lost its bearings and is anxiously seeking an anchorage that only we can offer, we should not allow ourselves to be driven by the current and look like people disposed to toy with principles». Benedict was unconcerned and made few changes. If not in the case of the Secretariat of State, where, acting on his first-hand knowledge of men and offices, he made decisive choices. Enough to recall, apart from Gasparri, called to replace Merry del Val as Secretary of State after the sudden death of Ferrata, the names of Bonaventura Cerretti, of Pacelli, of Ratti, of Valfrè di Bonzo himself (and also of Roncalli and of Montini who was then on the bottom rungs of his career), all destined to posts of consequence during Benedict’s pontificate. That he chose his name not only in reference to the saintly monk of Norcia, but also, according to his own words (it seems), to Benedict XIV, who had been his predecessor not only in the See of Bologna but also in that of Rome in the mid seventeen hundreds: a jurist like himself and like him constrained to defend himself from those who wanted to teach the pope doctrine.
Charity and obedience are the key categories of his first programmatic encyclical Ad beatissimi of November 1914. And for that matter those had been the features marking the work of Monsignor Della Chiesa and that were to distinguish his magisterium and action also as pope. Categories to be made to prevail not only ad intra (something obvious and perhaps also for that reason rarely practiced), but also ad extra, with insistence, on the one hand, on the duty of «mutual love among men» and, on the other, the apostolic principle of submission to every legitimate authority.
It is interesting to note that the encyclical derives the ultimate reason for mutual love among men from the fact that Jesus Christ shed his blood for all. The Pope repeats that three times. The war had just broken out, and that insistence already implicitly suggested that any other bloodshed was futile. The famous Note to the belligerents of 1 August 1917, the one speaking of «futile slaughter» – that by no accident began Dès le début («From the beginnings of our pontificate…») – was to do no more than exfoliate that judgment, fortified by novel and more barbaric and bloody systems of assault, such as aerial bombardment, explicitly mentioned.
The purpose of that Note, furthermore, was not to define or denounce, but rather to offer a concrete peace proposal. «It was the first time in the course of the war that any person or power had formulated a detailed or practical scheme for peace negotiation» (according to Pollard). In the awareness, more times expressed by the Pope from the Ad beatissimi onwards, that peace is the necessary condition for true mutual love among men: «Peace is a very great gift of God: among earthly things nothing more pleasant is to be welcomed, nor can anything sweeter be desired: in short nothing better can be found», he was to write, quoting Augustine, again in the Pacem Dei munus.
The previous articles by Lorenzo Cappelletti on the popes who have taken the name Benedict printed in 30Days <br><br> 1) Nomen omen, no. 10, October 2005, pp. 64-69; <br> 2) A discontinuous “continuum”, no. 11, November 2005, pp. 38-43; <br> 3) Reforming Benedicts, no. 12, December 2005, pp. 40-45.
But the nationalism of many governments, adverse to all solutions other than the bloody one of war, determined the failure of the 1917 proposal. There was also the negative influence of the minority situation of the Holy See in terms of diplomacy. Since 1870 the pope had in fact exercised no sovereignty and during the previous pontificate Merry del Val had favored, when possible, increasing isolation, almost making the retreat behind the walls of value into a vaunt: with France, for example, there had been no relations since 1906. With Great Britain for three centuries and half!
Thus Benedict XV (despite having reactivated those relations and many others; though with Italy there was still no conciliation) was allowed only to bandage the wounds caused by the conflict, organizing collections, exchanges of prisoners, the gathering of information. The praise that he then received seems at times to express gratitude in direct proportion to satisfaction with the subaltern position to which his efforts had been limited.
Nor when the war was over was the Holy See allowed to participate in the Versailles peace conference of spring-summer 1919. Yet Benedict and Gasparri were perhaps the more acute analysts, we would say today, and they would have brought a contribution to peace had that been the purpose of the peace conference. So true is it that they immediately glimpsed that the conditions imposed on the vanquished would not soothe hostile feeling. Just as they noted the impossibility of self-sufficiency for the nations that emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. «A forecast of which history, in an altogether too painful way, has shown to be right», writes Pollard.
L’Osservatore Romano 
of 17 August 1917 with the text of the Note from Benedict XV to the leaders of the warring countries.

L’Osservatore Romano of 17 August 1917 with the text of the Note from Benedict XV to the leaders of the warring countries.

There was also great anxiety in the Vatican on account of a Middle East redrawn by the fall of the Ottoman Empire: the multi-religious co-existence that the Empire had at bottom guaranteed was now beginning to come apart, as detailed in a fine monograph by Andrea Riccardo with the revealing title: Benedetto XV e la crisi della convivenza religiosa nell’Impero ottomano [Benedict XV and the crisis of religious co-existence in the Ottoman Empire].

Some farseeing undertakings
Up to this point the first half of Benedict XV’s pontificate was dominated by the emergency of the war and lasted well beyond the end of it, as we have seen. The second, which chronologically partly overlaps with the first, is marked by some farseeing undertakings. Even if they do not all come from the Pope as projects, or are not directly his work, they do, however, owe it to him that they became realities: the Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1917, a collection begun under Pius X and due largely to the competence and industry of Gasparri; again in 1917, the splitting off from Propaganda Fide of an autonomous Congregation of the Oriental Church (later “of the Oriental Churches”) of which the Pope, precisely because of the importance he attached to it, assumed the presidency, and the creation of an Institute of Studies on the Christian East. Actions that seem of a mere administrative sort, were in reality indicative of a conception of Catholicism that would fail to be such without the non-Latin Churches, as the current rector of that Institute of Studies reiterated at a recent conference held in Anagni; the opening of a new missionary era, inaugurated by the encyclical Maximum illud that programmatically rid the action of the missionaries from the perverse tangle with nationalism and colonialism, that was hindering, in particular, the emergence of an autochthonous hierarchy in China; and finally the hesitant but real beginning of the very first ecumenic discussions that took place in Malines with the approval of the Pope himself on the eve of his death.
As for Italy, or rather the Roman Question, it was through the tried friendship between Benedict XV and his old school friend Baron Carlo Monti, director general of Religious Affairs and, behind the scenes, chargé d’affaires of the Italian government to the Holy See, that the “Unofficial Conciliation” began, events that provided the title for the two volumes of Monti’s diary recently published, rich «in singular authenticity and freshness», as Cardinal Silvestrini writes in the preface.
As it was also due to Benedict XV and Gasparri that the Italian Popular Party came into being (the Appello ai liberi e forti [Appeal to the free and strong] dates from 18 January 1919). Not in the sense that they wanted it to be . «The Popular Party came out of spontaneous generation without any intervention of the Holy See for or against», Gasparri wrote in his memoirs. But in the sense that it was born and developed according to those coordinates of non-denominationalism and reformism that would pass it over to Italy as a factor decisive for the «greater welfare of its social life», to use Gasparri’s own words. It was something that they indeed wanted, writes Father Sale, even against the wishes of that section of Catholics and bishops who «were thinking of the creation of a Catholic party deeply submissive to the directives of the hierarchy».


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