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from issue no. 05 - 2005

An enlightened predecessor

An article by the Archbishop on Genoa on Prospero Lambertini, Pope from 1740 to 1758

by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone

Portrait of Benedict XIV, Pierre Subleyras, Musée du Château, Versailles

Portrait of Benedict XIV, Pierre Subleyras, Musée du Château, Versailles

After an interesting TV debate on the new Pope, President Andreotti asked me to present – in homage to Benedict XVI – a sketch of his precursor of the same name, Benedict XIV, the outcome of my previous studies*, that Pope Ratzinger kindly referred on his first visit to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 20 April 2005.

1. Training and election
as pope
Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini was born on 31 March 1675 in Bologna, the son of Marcello and of Lucrezia Bulgarini. Of outstanding intelligence and application to his studies, he gained a degree in theology and in utroque iure in Rome in 1694.
Because of his qualities and of the universal respect he enjoyed in Roman circles, he went through all the levels and offices of the Roman Curia, becoming secretary of the Congregation of the Council in 1718.
It is surprising that all the biographical sources are silent on a moment generally considered important in the life of a cleric: the date of his priestly ordination. In reality, Lambertini, for reasons that cannot be put down to an outdated custom, and that it would be interesting to go into, delayed his priestly ordination until 1724, when, at the age of almost fifty, he could consider himself at the peak of his experience and “Roman” activity.
The sources are agreed that the future pope was a lively and witty man, impetuous and cordial. Father de Montfaucon described him as follows: «Lambertini has two souls: one for knowledge, the other for society». With Pastor we can affirm: «Altogether one can say that Benedict XIV was the embodiment of the Italian spirit in its best and most pleasant side».
As a sign of appreciation and goodwill he was made archbishop in partibus of Theodosia, cardinal in pectore in 1726 and resident bishop of Ancona in 1727.
He was proclaimed cardinal on 30 April 1728. On 30 April 1731 he was transferred to the See of Bologna, his native city, where the scholar, the prelate of the Roman Curia, showed himself to be a zealous and godly pastor.
Visits and instructions were the concrete means he used for raising the spiritual level of clergy and people.
Despite his time-consuming work as pastor of souls, Cardinal Lambertini remained a man of study. It is enough to list the works he wrote in Bologna to grasp the extent of his literary activity. His Ordinanze, collected and published, served many bishops as models. The large works De Servorum Dei beatificatione et canonizatione appeared from 1734 to 1738, and remained a classic for the Roman Curia.
We should not forget other smaller, but very important works: De sacrificio Missae, De festis Domini nostri Iesu Christi, Beatae Mariae Virginis et quorundam Sanctorum, and the rich Thesaurus Resolutionum Sacrae Congregationis Concilii, compiled while he was still secretary of the Sacred Congregation.
Also the De Synodo Dioecesana was begun in Bologna. In truth he could say: «Ma plume est ma meilleure amie».
It was precisely in Bologna, in the autumn of 1731, that he met the great historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori, who normally lived in Modena: from then on the two men were bound by mutual respect and friendship.
In the February 1740 the news of the death of Clement XII reached Bologna. Cardinal Lambertini had to leave for the conclave, the second of his life (the first was after the death of Benedict XIII: he had been cardinal then for barely two years, and it made no particular impression on his mind).
This second conclave was of such size and importance as to totally alter the course of his life: in fact after unsettlable arguments and inconclusive sessions, at the 255th poll, after six months of conclave, on 17 August 1740 Cardinal Lambertini was elected pope. The joy at his election, as welcome as unexpected, was immense.
His love of knowledge and his doctrine were immediately revealed in the non-stop personal commitment to study that allowed him to go on with his publications.
His work schedule was killing. Here is how he himself describes the program of one day: «The day is twenty-four hours long. We get up at ten Italian time and go to bed at three Italian time: and we assure you that, apart from the half hour for lunch, and the hour from the two to three, during the rest one listens, or writes, or reads».
His academic training stands out in both the private writings, and his legislation, which mirrors his vast personal erudition.
Yet he still found a way of going out into the city and being seen by his subjects – something that his precursors had not done – of going from church to church to take part in the Forty Hours almost every evening and of personally performing all the religious functions, because he believed it to be one of the duties of the pontiff.
The promoter of multiple cultural and artistic initiatives, he founded four Academies in Rome: of the Councils, of Ecclesiastical History, of the Liturgy, and of Roman Antiquities. He reformed the Sapienza University, of which he had been rector as “consistorial advocate”, founding the new chairs of Mathematics, Chemistry and strengthening that of Experimental Physics.
He showed understanding towards the ideas of his time and «sought to increasingly adapt the severity of ecclesiastical discipline to the new spirit of tolerance, to protect the freedom of scholarly research».
One result of his attitude was respect and consideration for men of culture, and the relationships formed with very different individuals, for example, apart from that already mentioned with Muratori, with Pierre Louis Moreau De Maupertuis, president of the Academy of the Sciences of Berlin, with the Neapolitan Antonio Genovese, with the Veronese Scipione Maffei, with Voltaire.
His breadth of outlook and equilibrium accompanied him also in government: both in the choice of collaborators and in financial and commercial policy.
When he died on 3 May 1758 he had spent almost 18 years of pontifical service on the cathedra of Peter, bringing to it that wealth of learning, that indefatigable industry in advancing reforms indicated by the Council of Trent, as he had already done in Ancona and Bologna, that mildness and that concrete sense of reality also in difficult diplomatic work, that made him the «greatest Pontiff of his century, to whom the history of the Church will continue to allot a merited position among the most distinguished successors of Peter» (Pius XII).

2. Judgments on the man and his politico-religious activity
Benedict XIV «was by far superior, in personal qualities and in the happy timing and duration of his pontificate, to the popes who preceded and followed him».
The awareness of his tremendous responsibility, his extraordinary capacity for work led him to write: «One can be pope, eating and drinking, ordering others, and doing nothing oneself, and not even demanding account of the work done by others, putting all one’s concern and content into enriching one’s house, and the papacy taken in these terms is the finest employment there is in this world. In this world I said, because the thing in the other will certainly not be so, whereas by laboring continuously, working day and night, concerning oneself so that things go less badly, not having either meat, or blood, won’t be little in the other world, if one doesn’t lose one’s drive, and if the great mercy of God will be satisfied for omissions with purgatory till the day of judgment».
His avowed intention, «the principal business of the pontificate», was «to maintain the faith where it is, and spread it where it is not». A difficult task, especially in the tormented and agitated period of the Jansenist and jurisdictional controversies that forced him at times to restrict the effectiveness of his intervention to desperate defensive action and containment of centrifugal drives: «We shall reflect very well on all, esteeming the Gallican Church as much as possible, loving the nation, but not, however, to the prejudice of this Holy See, to which if we are not able to bring advantage, we should not want on our the deathbed to lament having caused her harm».
His vision of the situation of the Church and acute sensitivity to every act and event directed against the Pope made him – against his natural disposition - sometimes very bitter in his judgments: «The world is today reduced to a state, that if one likes a thing, those who like it are for the Pope, and those who dislike it are against the Pope; and since it is impossible that a thing should please everybody, it follows that the Pope’s woes are unavoidable». And in reply to the proposed resignation of Cardinal de Tencin from the Council of the Crown he added: «If we should want to remind you of all our troubles, all our bitterness, which is what we receive from the supreme pontificate, how many and how much times it has occurred to us to return to private life, we would fill many sheets of paper, and we assure you, that nothing holds us back except the thought of sacrificing to God in amendment of our sins the discomforts, that we bear, and the thought of dying with the sword in our hand since we have unsheathed it».
In fact the Pope managed to stand in the breach with candor, realism and courage, confessing: «... We have never been afraid of the truth and of justice, but... our fear was always and is of lying and injustice».
Incapable of pretence, a free man above flattery, out of that good humour that he managed to preserve even in the saddest days, the Pope came across as extremely likable because he knew how to joke not only about others, but also about himself, and was ready to acknowledge when he was wrong, to apologize for his outbursts, to forgive, if not to forget. Even in harsh political dealings he never lost that substantial fund of optimism that surprisingly makes him resemble, in some features of his personality, his distant nearer successor – nearer to us in time – John XXIII, when he declares: «Non ex eorum numero Nos sumus, quibus persuasum sit, omnia in nostra tempora inconvenientia accidere, atque ea praesentibus diebus contingere scandala, quae numquam praeteritis temporibus evenerint».
That attitude was without doubt based on the profound spirituality of Benedict XIV, still all to be explored.
He revealed himself a man of prayer not only during the Holy Year, but right from the beginning of his pontificate, when he ardently begged for the gifts of the Holy Spirit and invited the whole of the Catholic Church – first and foremost the bishops, who must be models of piety - to pray unceasingly for the Pope. He himself set the example: it is well known that he attended all the religious functions in Rome, when physical resistance and the work of the Curia allowed it to one who couldn’t manage «to write or dictate two lines, without interruption by an audience or embassies, or readers, or notes, or a great deal of business».
Faced with the crisis of Christianity under the ancient regime our Pope sought remedy in the support of the Catholic powers, but still more in the growth of the religious life and in the continual concern that the clergy should teach Christian truth and proclaim the Gospel with great commitment.
Portrait of Cardinal Lambertini, Giuseppe Maria Crepi, 
Collezioni Comunali d’Arte, Bologna

Portrait of Cardinal Lambertini, Giuseppe Maria Crepi, Collezioni Comunali d’Arte, Bologna

Scholars are of the opinion that two features mark the landscape of eighteenth-century religiosity. First of all throughout the Catholic world, but especially in Italy and France, the eighteenth century can well be called the century of the popular preaching. And let us think not only of the evidence of the very many volumes of printed sermons, scriptural lessons, panegyrics, but of the fact that there was not, one may say, as regards Italy, any place or village untouched by the preaching of roaming missionaries.
Benedict XIV was an ardent supporter of this – both in providing authoritative indications for pastoral action, and from the point of view of practice - in the Papal States and in Rome, making use of the zealous preacher Leonardo da Porto Maurizio.
By popular preaching, meant to stem the dechristianization of intellectuals by enlarging the peasant and urban grass-roots, our Pope strove to insert theologically valid and instructive content, above all by encouraging the spread of the essays of French orators, and to get rid of the traditional invectives against unbelievers and the Jews, in an effort of purification that matched his forbearing spirit and willingness for dialogue.
The second fact to note is the birth of new religious congregations, aimed at evangelization and spiritual presence and charitable assistance to the poor and disinherited. Let us think above all of the apostolic action of the Passionists in the then Papal States and that of the Redemptorists among the urban and rural lower class of the Naples area. Nor is it without significance that over the span of the century there formed and spread a piety at times rigorous, at times tender and affectionate, the former - as was that of Paul of the Cross - in open contrast to the secular inclination to a softness in feeling, the other, that of Alfonso de’ Liguori, aimed at a naive and affectionate participation in the Christian mystery and such as to happily adopt in itself the common propensity to sensibility.
The new current of Passionist spirituality, that offered contemplation of the “folly of the Cross” as the pivot of Christian life, stood against a social world that took pride in the “lights of reason”. Benedict XIV encouraged and favored the humble hermit and went so far as to exclaim: «The Congregation of the Passion should have been the first founded by the Church and here it is coming last».
As for his politico-religious action one can list the following features of his international policy: «calm judgment of the situation, acceptance of the way things were, peacemaking even to the detriment of his prestige».
It is certain that the conciliatory attitude of Benedict XIV towards the demands of rulers, Catholic and Protestant alike, improved the climate in which the Church and Religion were called upon to live. Our Pope put into effect his saying that «the Pope must precede the sovereign» in him, for he wanted above all to be pastor of souls: «We are determined in our thought not to appear before the judgment of God guilty of not having done everything we could for the welfare of souls».

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