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BENEDICT XV
from issue no. 05 - 2005

«In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum»


Benedict XVI quoted the motto of Pope Della Chiesa to express his «humble abandonment into the hands of the Providence of God» and «total and trustful adherence to Christ»


by Andrea Riccardi


Benedict XV

Benedict XV

In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum! That was the motto of Benedict XV, pope from 1914 to 1922. A motto taken from Psalm 70 (71). The new Pope Benedict XVI adopted these words in offering – as he said – «some features» of his program of government. The reference obviously is to the message addressed to the cardinals on the day following the election, again in the Sistine Chapel, on 20 April last. Benedict XVI quoted the motto of his predecessor to express «humble abandonment into the hands of the Providence of God» and «total and trustful adherence to Christ». It is a biblical interpretation that Giacomo della Chiesa shared. And one could also well apply to Benedict XV the words spoken by Pope Ratzinger in the homily with which he inaugurated his Petrine ministry on 24 April, that «not doing my will, not following my ideas, but setting myself to listen, with the whole Church, to the word and will of the Lord and letting myself be led by Him, so that He Himself leads the Church in this hour of our history».
In the case of Giacomo della Chiesa, the matter of not being «confounded for ever» was expressed in an attention to reality careful to recognize things for what they were. Giacomo della Chiesa was an extremely lucid and rational man, an extraordinary worker, able to simplify complexities, concerned with the historical problems of peoples, with an understanding of grand politics and the qualities of a leader. A Genoese aristocrat, a prudent and courageous conservative, he was responsive to popular piety and willing to listen to anybody. He was at the same time accustomed to the upper ranks of society, and his affectionate friendships with the Habsburg family is worth remembering. Benedict XV wanted to bring order and fraternity to a Church shaken by the animosities of the quarrel over Modernism. He imposed internal peace to close a parenthesis that he retained excessively introverted and to restore apostolic and missionary thrust to the Church. Not least for that reason he speeded up the promulgation, in 1917, of the new Codex iuris canonici. He relaunched the organized Catholic movement, in its political expressions also, and one thinks of the founding in Italy of the Popular Party of Don Sturzo in 1919. The shaping of the structures of Catholic Action, so dear to Pius XI, was not the work of Pope Ratti but of Benedict XV who gave impetus to the rise of a mass lay movement. The Genoese Pope also gave an organic rearrangement, so to speak, to the Catholic Church’s relations with the East by founding the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the institutes connected with it. For the few years given him to govern he did much and had lasting influence.
Benedict XV – and this perhaps the reason for his earthly reputation – was altogether up to his times. His brief pontificate witnesses the First World War (with the hangover of nationalistic rancor in the post-war years), the collapse of the four empires of continental Europe (German, Habsburg, Tsarist, Ottoman), the genocide of the Armenians and other Christians, including quite a few Catholics. The period of Benedict XV was marked by the Bolshevik revolution but also by the virulence of exaggerated nationalisms. Lenin and Wilson were his contemporaries, and he had to measure himself against them, not least in the indirect competition of public reputation.
Benedict XV became known as the “Pope of Peace”, the epithet deriving from his constant censure of the war. His magisterium was in fact a series of condemnations of the Great War, described variously by him as «monstrous spectacle», «dreadful scourge», «horrendous carnage», «suicide of civilized Europe», «tragedy of human madness», coming to the «futile butchery» of the appeal for peace addressed to the warring governments in August 1917. His inflexible condemnation of the First World War was not meant as an innovation on the theological level of the Church’s doctrine on warfare but expressed above all human and Christian horror at a devastating event causing bloodshed and loss. The description of the war as «futile butchery», in a Europe pervaded by aggressive fury and spreading chauvinism, earned Benedict XV the dislike of all the ruling classes of the countries involved in the conflict. Even quite a few Catholic leaders, in one or the other camp, rejected the Pontiff’s appeals for peace, feeling themselves altogether one with their respective governments in demanding that the only possible peace was victory and the annihilation of the enemy. A real campaign of denigration was set going against Benedict XV in the countries at war. Benedict XV’s words got hearing among the masses, both Catholic and socialist, the latter betrayed by leaders willing to go along with the war policies of the governments.
Benedict XV took a super partes position, an absolutely impartial stance, to the world conflict, adopting diplomatic and humanitarian forms that would inspire other pontiffs in the course of the twentieth century. The wisdom of Benedict XV’s position comes all the clearer when one thinks that two thirds of the Catholics of the time were involved in the war: 124,000,000 with the Entente, 64,000,000 with the Central Empires. But Giacomo della Chiesa did not take mere positions of principle towards the war. He had the temperament of a public man, skilfully worked Vatican diplomacy, drafted detailed peace proposals that had nothing to envy in Realpolitik. He wrote to the Kaiser and the Sultan, to Franz Joseph and Lenin. He made of the Church a great humanitarian world agency for aid to the civilian populations and especially to prisoners - nothing to envy in the Red Cross. In 1920 appeared the first encyclical devoted to peace written by a pope, the Pacem Dei munus, affirming the need for a reconciliation between victors and vanquished. The Vatican archives contain a handwritten note by Benedict XV – a rarity, because this Pope used to communicate very little in writing with his collaborators and didn’t note down his ideas - which makes clear that he didn’t believe in any “victory” or solution of force: «In every war to achieve peace it has been necessary to put aside the aim of crushing the adversary: putting the adversary in a position where he can no longer make an attempt is foolishness, because the attempt will be retried after some time, both if the adversary really has regained strength, and if he only believes he has regained it. Wars will exist not just till force lasts, but until human greed lasts». Benedict XV, tireless in his pursuit of peaceful solutions, believed in the reasonableness of diplomatic mediation and above all in rapprochement between enemies.
But Giacomo della Chiesa was not only the “Pope of peace”. He was also the “Pope of the mission”. On 30 November 1919 the apostolic letter Maximum illud was published. It was the first pontifical document to deal with the question of the missions in global fashion. It pointed to a new “indigenous” perspective for universal evangelization, freeing Catholicism in mission countries from the shackles of European nationalisms. It affirmed the freedom of the Catholic missions from the politics of the colonial powers that considered themselves protectors of the missions, but in reality used them for their own ends. The Maximum illud affirmed the autonomy of the Church when a nationalistic mentality was dominating international relations. The document went decidedly against the current. Among other things it appeared while the victorious European States were at Versailles, deciding the post-war order of the world according to traditional criteria of power and were sharing out colonies, protectorates and spheres of influence. Decolonization – it should be remembered – is a post 1945 phenomenon.
It was the Chinese situation above all that was decisive in the drafting of the Maximum illud. It led Benedict XV and his collaborators to an overall reflection on the relationship between missions and colonial politics, between missions and local Churches, between evangelization and inculturation. In China missionary activity was subordinate to the French protectorate, according to the dictates of an agreement Paris had wrenched from Beijing in 1858. In consequence of that, Catholicism was seen by the majority of the Chinese as “the French religion”. Chinese Catholics suffered from the “foreign” character of their faith, that blocked its spread in wide strata of society. The missionaries, in good proportion French, saw China as a territory in which to expand the influence of their mother country (and of their congregation) and fought against the formation of a native clergy. Benedict XV became convinced of the need to go ahead with making the Church in China Chinese and of establishing diplomatic relations directly with the Chinese government.
French soldiers in the battle of the Marne during the First World War

French soldiers in the battle of the Marne during the First World War

After the Maximum illud an apostolic delegate of great force of character was sent to China, Monsignor Celso Costantini, future Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda Fide. The Holy See would have preferred to have an apostolic nuncio in Beijing, but France, jealous of its politico-ecclesiastical protectorate, prevented it, claiming to the weak Chinese government that the diplomats proposed by the Vatican for the desired nunciature were pro-German. Costantini saw to the nomination of the first Chinese bishops (Pius XI was to consecrate six in 1926) and eradicated many signs of what Chinese society saw as the foreignness of Catholicism. Among friends, Costantini would joke: «Either with the missionaries against the Maximum illud or with the Maximum illud against the missionaries». More seriously, it was a matter of avoiding confusion between the Christian message and the interest of the Western powers.
The missionary vision of Benedict XV showed great respect for the peoples the Church was addressing. For him, the missionary was not the representative of interested parties but the bearer of the Gospel. He stated: «It is necessary that whoever preaches the Gospel be a man of God…». The Maximum illud concluded with the prospect of a new missionary period: «And here, it seems to us that the divine Master exhorts us also, as one day he did Peter, with those words: “go forth”, what warmth of fatherly charity urges us to wish to lead the whole of mankind to the embrace of Him!»
Significantly the pontificate of Benedict XV appears marked by an interweaving of the work for peace and reconciliation with the relaunching of the missions. The Church of Benedict XV was not committed to the achieving of a program or to the realization of the Pope’s personal theological ideas. Rather it expressed wise and timely reactions - these certainly organic and forward-looking in their development, through the wise guidance of the Pope - to the exceptional and frightening events in a world perturbed by war and nationalism. Observing the situation in the light of prayer and the Word of God, Benedict XV recognized that it was the Lord who led his Church and was making use of him, designated as successor to Peter, to spread the Gospel and put it into practice.



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