Cloisters of Saint John Lateran, Rome. Source:

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Pope Benedict XV (Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista Della Chiesa). Papacy From 1914-1922. (Part Three.)

Text and Illustrations from Wikipedia - the free encyclopaedia,
unless otherwise stated.

English: Pope Benedict XV, circa 1915.
Français: Photo de Benoît XV prise vers 1915.
Photo: Circa 1915.
Source: Library of Congress.
Author: Unknown.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Benedict XV's Pontificate was dominated by World War I, which he termed, along with its turbulent aftermath, "the suicide of Europe." Benedict's first Encyclical extended a heartfelt plea for an end to hostilities. His early call for a Christmas Truce, in 1914, was ignored.

The war and its consequences were Benedict's main focus during the early years of his Pontificate. He declared the neutrality of the Holy See and attempted, from that perspective, to mediate peace in 1916 and 1917. Both sides rejected his initiatives.

The national antagonisms between the warring parties were accentuated by religious differences before the war, with France, Italy and Belgium being largely Catholic. Vatican relations with Great Britain were good, while neither Prussia nor Imperial Germany had any official relations with the Vatican. In Protestant circles of Germany, the notion was popular that the Roman Catholic Pope was neutral on paper only, strongly favouring the Allies, instead.

Pope Benedict XV appointed Eugenio Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII) as Papal Nuncio to Bavaria on 23 April 1917, Consecrating him as Titular Bishop of Sardis, and immediately Elevating him to Archbishop in the Sistine Chapel, on 13 May 1917, the very day Our Lady of Fatima is believed to have first appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal.
Available on YouTube at

Pope Benedict XV was said to have prompted Austria–Hungary to go to war in order to weaken the German war machine. Allegedly, however, the Papal Nuncio in Paris explained in a meeting of the Institut Catholique, "to fight against France is to fight against God," and the Pope was said to have exclaimed that he was sorry not to be a Frenchman. The Belgian Cardinal, Désiré-Joseph Mercier, known as a brave patriot during German occupation, but also famous for his anti-German propaganda, was said to have been favoured by Benedict XV for his enmity to the German cause. (After the war, Benedict also allegedly praised the Treaty of Versailles, which humiliated the Germans.)

These allegations were rejected by the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Gasparri, who wrote on 4 March 1916 that the Holy See is completely impartial and does not favour the allied side. This was even more important, so Gasparri noted, after the diplomatic representatives of Germany and Austria–Hungary to the Vatican were expelled from Rome by Italian authorities. However, considering all this, German Protestants rejected any "Papal Peace", stating it as insulting. French politician Georges Clemenceau, a fierce anti-Clerical, claimed to regard the Vatican initiative as anti-French. Benedict made many unsuccessful attempts to negotiate peace, but these pleas for a negotiated peace made him unpopular, even in Catholic countries like Italy, among many supporters of the war who were determined to accept nothing less than total victory.

On 1 August 1917, Benedict issued a Seven Point Peace Plan stating that (1) "the moral force of right . . . be substituted for the material force of arms," (2) there must be "simultaneous and reciprocal diminution of armaments," (3) a mechanism for "international arbitration" must be established," (4) "true liberty and common rights over the sea" should exist, (5) there should be a "renunciation of war indemnities," (6) occupied territories should be evacuated, and (7) there should be "an examination . . . of rival claims."

The Call to Fatima:
Request of Pope Benedict XV to Our Lady.
Available on YouTube at

Great Britain reacted favourably, but United States President, Woodrow Wilson, rejected the Plan. Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary were also favourable, but Germany replied ambiguously. Pope Benedict XV also called for outlawing Conscription, a call he repeated in 1921. Some of the proposals eventually were included in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points Call For Peace, in January 1918.

In Europe, each side saw him as biased in favour of the other and was unwilling to accept the terms he proposed. Still, although unsuccessful, his diplomatic efforts during the war are attributed to an increase of Papal prestige and served as a model in the 20th-Century to the peace efforts of Pope Pius XII before, and during, World War II, the policies of Pope Paul VI during the Vietnam War, and the position of Pope Saint John Paul II before, and during, the War in Iraq.

Almost from the beginning of the war, November 1914, Pope Benedict negotiated with the warring parties about an exchange of wounded, and other Prisoners of War, who were unable to continue fighting. Tens of thousands of such prisoners were exchanged through the intervention of Pope Benedict XV. On 15 January 1915, the Pope proposed an Exchange of Civilians from the Occupied Zones, which resulted in 20,000 persons being sent to unoccupied Southern France in one month.


Saint Joan of Arc Church,
Mobile, Alabama,
United States of America.

In 1916, the Pope managed to hammer out an agreement between both sides, by which 29,000 prisoners, with lung disease from the gas attacks, could be sent into Switzerland. In May 1918, he also reached agreement that prisoners on both sides, with at least 18 months of captivity and four children at home, would also be sent to neutral Switzerland.

He succeeded, in 1915, in reaching an agreement by which the warring parties promised not to let Prisoners of War (POWs) work on Sundays and holidays. Several individuals on both sides were spared the death penalty after his intervention. Hostages were exchanged and corpses repatriated. The Pope founded the Opera dei Prigionieri to assist in distributing information on prisoners. By the end of the war, some 600,000 items of correspondence were processed. Almost a third of it concerned Missing Persons. Some 40,000 people had asked for help in the repatriation of sick POWs and 50,000 letters were sent from families to their loved ones who were POWs.

Both during and after the war, Benedict was primarily concerned about the fate of the children, about which he even issued an Encyclical. In 1916, he appealed to the people and Clergy of the United States to help him feed the starving children in German-occupied Belgium. His aid to children was not limited to Belgium, but extended to children in Lithuania, Poland, Lebanon, Montenegro, Syria and Russia. Pope Benedict was particularly appalled at the new military invention of aerial warfare and protested several times against it, to no avail.

Photo of Joan of Arc's Beatification Ceremony
Saint Peter's Basilica,
The Vatican, 1909.

In May 1915 and June 1915, the Ottoman Empire waged a campaign against the Armenian Christian minorities, which, by some contemporary accounts, looked like genocide, or even a holocaust, in Anatolia. The Vatican attempted to get Germany and Austria–Hungary involved in protesting to its Turkish ally. The Pope sent a personal letter to the Sultan, who was also Caliph of Islam. It had no success, “as over a million Armenians died, either killed outright by the Turks, or as a result of maltreatment or from starvation."

At the time, however, the anti-Vatican resentment, combined with Italian diplomatic moves to isolate the Vatican, in light of the unresolved Roman Question, contributed to the exclusion of the Vatican from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (although it was also part of a historical pattern of political and diplomatic marginalisation of the Papacy, after the loss of the Papal States). Despite this, he wrote an Encyclical pleading for international reconciliation, Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum. There is a statue, in Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome, of the Pontiff absorbed in Prayer, kneeling on a tomb which commemorates a fallen soldier of the war, which he described as a "useless massacre."

After the war, Benedict focused the Vatican's activities on overcoming famine and misery in Europe and establishing contacts and relations with the many new States, which were created because of the demise of Imperial Russia, Austria–Hungary and Germany. Large food shipments and information about, as well as contacts with, Prisoners of War were to be the first steps for a better understanding of the Papacy in Europe.

Archbishop della Chiesa
on a Pastoral visit in 1910.
Date: 7 September 2008 (original upload date).
Source: Transferred from en.wikipedia.
(Original text : Pro Familia).
Author: Pro Familia Milano. Original uploader
(Wikimedia Commons)

Regarding the Versailles Peace Conference, the Vatican believed that the economic conditions imposed on Germany were too harsh and threatened the European economic stability, as a whole. Cardinal Gasparri believed that the peace conditions and the humiliation of the Germans would likely result in another war, as soon as Germany would be militarily in a position to start one.


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