Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Pope of the Great War

On April 18, 2005, my then pastor in New York asked me what name I would take, were I to be elected pope in the conclave that was then taking place to choose a successor to Pope Saint John Paul II. Recent practice has been to  pick the name of some recent predecessor whom one particularly admires or with whose pontificate one wishes to identify. So, after a few minutes of thought, I ventured that I would choose as my name Benedict XVI, thus identifying with and honoring Pope Benedict XV (Giacomo della Chiesa,1854-1922), who was elected pope 100 years ago tomorrow and so reigned through World War I and its aftermath. Needless to say, I was quite thrilled the next day when the real winner of the actual conclave chose the same name I would have chosen!

In this centennial year of the Great War, which woodrow Wilson would foolishly endorse to make the world safe for democracy but which Pope Benedict XV more accurately diagnosed in his first encyclical (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, November 1, 1914) as "the suicide of civilized Europe, that little-noted and under-appreciated Pope deserves to be better remembered.

Physically awkward and unimpressive, Benedict lacked the charisma we have come to associate with modern media-star popes like Pius XII, John Paul II, and Francis. He did, however, come from a modestly noble family and was trained at rome's Pontifical Academy for Noble Ecclesiastics, from which he entered the papal diplomatic service. In 1907, he was consecrated Archbishop of Bologna, but he was not created a cardinal until May 1914. Yet, despite his being but three months a cardinal, he was elected pope in the wartime conclave that followed the death of Pope Saint Pius X. Allegedly, he chose the name Benedict in honor of Benedict XIV, who had also been Archbishop of Bologna. (Benedict XIV, 1675-1758, pope from 1740, was also the scholarly modern expert on the process of canonization, who wrote the classic text De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione, "On the Beatification of Servants of God and the Canonization of Blesseds.")

As pope, Benedict endeavored to mediate a peace, even issuing a seven-point peace plan in 1917. Had he been heeded, that might have ended the massive slaughter of the war and forestalled the destruction of the European political order that the war resulted in. Most world leaders, however, apart from Austrian Kaiser Karl I (since 2004, Blessed Charles of Austria), were too trapped in their positions to be able to break through the political logjam that corresponded to the stalemate in the trenches. and, of course, the French Republic was vehemently anti-clerical, and the Kingdom of Italy (which had occupied Rome since 1870) had a strong interest in marginalizing the Pope's international standing. (It would seem that the only lasting legacy of his peace efforts is the invocation of Mary as Queen of peace in the Litany of Loretto.)

Pope Benedict was much more successful in his humanitarian efforts, however,and was especially successful in negotiating prisoner exchanges - a role the papacy with its international reach is well suited for even in the modern world if it has lost any actual ability to influence political developments.Nonetheless, it deserves to be said that his diagnosis of the war and his proposals for resolving the conflict were - as my generation would say, "right on" - and the world has been ever so much poorer this past century for failing to listen to him.

The memory of Pope benedict's humanitarian outreach was publicly honored in, of all places, Muslim Turkey (one of the Central Powers during World War I). A statue of him stands in Istanbul (photo). Its pedestal says: The great Pope of the world tragedy ... the benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion.  

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