This year marks the centenary of one of the greatest disasters humanity ever brought upon itself, the First World War. Not only did it cost the lives of over 16 million people; it also set the stage for other conflicts and even greater carnage in the decades that followed. In fact, its legacy of fear, hatred, vengeance and mistrust continues to influence current affairs. One voice crying for peace against the drumbeat for war was Pope Benedict XV, who served as pope from 1914 to 1922. While his warnings were disregarded in his own time, they still challenge us today.
On the eve of the war, the situation of the papacy was precarious. When the Kingdom of Italy occupied the Papal States, culminating in the seizure of Rome in 1870, the pope ceased to be an independent, sovereign ruler. After putting up a token resistance to the Italian artillery that breached the Aurelian Walls, Pope Pius IX ordered his little army to surrender and said to the diplomats present, “From this moment I am the prisoner of King Victor Emmanuel.”
Following the Italian occupation of Rome, only 16 countries had diplomatic relations with the Holy See. With the Italian Socialist Party and other radicals threatening what little authority the pope still retained in Rome, the Holy See had its hands full trying to maintain its position, let alone influence world events. This was still the pope’s political status when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Pope Pius X died on Aug. 20, 1914, and, as Europe mobilized for war, the cardinals gathered to elect a new pope.
The war divided the conclave. Cardinal Felix von Hartmann, a German, greeted the Belgian Cardinal Désiré Mercier saying, “I hope that we shall not speak of war.”
“And I hope that we shall not speak of peace,” Mercier replied sharply. Clearly a peacemaker was needed, and not simply on the geopolitical front. The church also needed healing. According to John Pollard, in his biography of Benedict XV, The Unknown Pope, the bitter and painful consequences of the anti-Modernist crusade, a papal program intended to roll back the “excesses” of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, concerned the cardinals. He writes that “as well as an international divide, a deep fissure over the issue of Modernism ran through the conclave.”
On Sept. 3, Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa, archbishop of Bologna, was elected and took the name Benedict XV. He certainly possessed the necessary credentials, having served in the papal diplomatic corps from 1882 to 1907, rising to the position of undersecretary of state. He was also known to be opposed to the ongoing witch hunt against theologians led by the extreme anti-Modernists. Benedict wasted no time in denouncing the war, issuing the apostolic exhortation “Ubi Primum” five days after his election. Filled with horror at seeing much of Europe “red with the blood of Christians,” he called upon the belligerents to bring an end to what he believed was the suicide of civilized Europe.
From the beginning, the pope refused to take sides. On Oct. 16, 1914, Benedict responded to a letter from Cardinal Louis Luçon, archbishop of Rheims, lamenting the damage done to his cathedral. Benedict said that he shared in the deep pain suffered by the people of Rheims because of the German occupation. Benedict, however, would not let this pain stir him to anger and make him lose sight of the higher goal of reducing suffering. Two days later, on Oct. 18, he wrote a letter of gratitude to Cardinal Felix von Hartmann, archbishop of Cologne, for his efforts in convincing Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to offer better treatment to captured French clergy who were prisoners of war. He seized the opportunity to press for better treatment, “without exception of religion or nationality,” of all prisoners being held in Germany, especially the ill and injured.
When his early calls for restraint went unheeded, Benedict issued the encyclical “Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum” (“Appealing for Peace”) on Nov. 1, 1914. Proclaiming himself the common father of all, he condemned the unprecedented carnage: “The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror.” Benedict offered no specific peace proposals; instead he stressed that there were other means by which nations could seek redress for their issues. These should “be tried honestly and with good will, and let arms meanwhile be laid aside.”
Benedict used his first encyclical to promote peace within the church as well. After reaffirming his predecessor’s condemnation of Modernism, he called for an end to the persecution of intellectuals: “There is room for divergent opinions…let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation.” No one, he insisted, should attach “the stigma of disloyalty to faith” to an opponent. Benedict did not want a church divided by parties, believing that factionalism contradicted the very nature of Catholicism. One such group promoting factionalism was the Sodalitium Pianum, which used unscrupulous methods, like going through private mail, to expose suspected Modernists. Benedict XV opposed their methods before and after becoming pope and suppressed the group in 1921.
Back on the western front, another peace effort came on Dec. 7, 1914, when Benedict called for a Christmas truce, “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” Again, those in power refused a cease-fire. But Benedict found kindred spirits in the trenches. In defiance of the military authorities, the soldiers negotiated local Christmas truces themselves. Men on the front lines put up decorations, sang carols back and forth across no man’s land, laid the victims of violence to rest, exchanged gifts and are even reported to have played a friendly game of soccer. Regrettably, such unsanctioned fraternity was prevented from breaking out again over the course of the war.
The Allies demanded that Benedict condemn alleged German atrocities in Belgium. They also pointed to the sack of Louvain and the burning of its university library as evidence of the unique barbarity of the Germans. The Holy See’s response to these demands was to point out that it was receiving complaints about Allied behavior as well, like the summary execution of unarmed crewmen onboard a surrendered German U-boat by British soldiers in the 1915 Baralong Incident. Benedict refrained from condemnations, which could be used to vindicate the cause of one side and justify waging war until it achieved total victory over the hated enemy. Benedict, rather, simply wanted a stop to the fighting, with peace itself representing victory. Sadly, the best proof of Benedict’s genuine neutrality was that he was condemned by the Allies as the German pope and by the Central Powers as the French pope.
Benedict sought to keep Italy neutral as well. The Italian government, however, bargained with the Allies in the Treaty of London to enter the conflict in April 1915. Italy desired territory inhabited by Italians that was under Austrian control, as well as German colonies in Africa and the Middle East. Benedict tried to mediate between Italy and Austria-Hungary, calling on Emperor Franz Joseph to make territorial concessions. The negotiations continued up to Italy’s declaration of war on May 23, 1915. In the end, Italy gained little more than what Benedict sought through negotiation, at the cost 650,000 Italian military personnel. As for the Holy See, Italy’s entry into the war weakened Benedict’s already limited diplomatic position. The Austrian and German embassies left Rome. With war measures in place, the Holy See’s mail, as well as the L’Osservatore Romano and the Jesuit journal La Civilità Cattolica, were subjected to Italian censorship.
Concern for the Suffering
Unable to stop the war, Benedict labored hard to limit the suffering. One special area of concern was the physical and spiritual wellbeing of prisoners. He ordered bishops with prison camps in their dioceses to assign clergy familiar with the prisoners’ language to minister to them and assist in communicating with their families. The various nuncios to the belligerent nations also visited prison camps to report on the facilities and the treatment of prisoners.
On Jan. 4, 1915, Benedict called on the belligerent nations to release interned civilians. He directed Cardinal Hartmann to mediate with the German authorities on behalf of Belgian and French civilians. Over 3,000 Belgians and 20,000 French were soon released. Later that year, the Opera dei Prigionieri was established by the Holy See to provide communication assistance for prisoners and their families. By the end of the war it processed approximately 600,000 items of correspondence, including letters, inquiries about missing persons and appeals to repatriate sick prisoners.
Benedict was very worried about infirm prisoners, many of whom contracted tuberculosis from their time in the damp trenches. Benedict pressed for an exchange of disabled prisoners, or at least their transfer to more hospitable climates. Lacking sovereignty, the Holy See turned to neutral Switzerland as a partner. Special envoys were sent to coordinate these efforts. By January 1917, 26,000 prisoners of war and 3,000 civilian detainees had received care in Switzerland.
Money was raised to assist civilian victims living in the conquered territories of Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Poland, Serbia, Montenegro and Lithuania. Benedict also contributed books to help restore Louvain’s incinerated library. Children were another major concern. In October 1916, Benedict appealed to Catholics in the United States to help feed Belgian youth. In addition to his own personal contribution of $2,000, he asked Cardinal James Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore, to call on his brother bishops to urge their Catholic school children to donate their mite to assist their little brothers and sisters in Belgium.
A Chance for Peace
In 1917 an opportunity for peace arose. Matthias Erzberger, a prominent member of Germany’s Catholic Center Party, was promoting a peace resolution, and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg seemed receptive. German initiative was the key. Germany occupied Belgian and French territory, and without German concessions there was little chance the Allies would participate in a peace conference. Benedict sent Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, to investigate diplomatic possibilities.
Pacelli had several conversations in July with Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser, seeking to gauge German openness on arms limitation, international courts, Belgian independence and other territorial issues, like competing claims to Alsace-Lorraine. Erzberger gave a speech for peace in the Reichstag, which was followed by a resolution in support of a negotiated peace on July 19 that passed 212 to 126.
Based on these positive developments, Benedict issued his Peace Note of Aug. 1, 1917. He began by recounting his neutrality and impartiality, legitimizing his call for a conference to end the war and bring about a “just and lasting peace.” Benedict proposed five points as a foundation for discussion: arms reduction, binding arbitration of disputes, freedom of the seas, negotiation of territorial disputes and the self-determination of peoples. On this last point, he appealed in particular for Armenia and Poland. Benedict realized that the topic of territorial disputes would be one of the most difficult. But he believed that, with all the lives to be spared and the money saved from reduced arms spending, “there is ground for hope that in consideration of the immense advantages of a lasting peace with disarmament, the conflicting parties will examine them in a conciliatory frame of mind.”
The Allies rejected Benedict’s call for a peace conference. This was disappointing, but not as shocking as Germany’s refusal. The German peace movement had triggered a vigorous response by the German military, leading to the forced resignation of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. Both sides still sought total victory, and Benedict’s call for a negotiated peace was once again rebuffed. As for the war, it continued for over a year until hundreds of thousands more died and Germany finally collapsed. Benedict’s hopes to participate in the peace conference were frustrated by a secret clause in the Treaty of London that allowed Italy to prohibit the pope’s involvement in future settlements.
The resulting Treaty of Versailles was the kind of vindictive, imposed peace Benedict feared. In 1915, on the war’s first anniversary, Benedict warned that total victory was an illusion. Even if the enemy were completely beaten down, its defeat would only sow the seeds for future war: “Nations do not die; humbled and oppressed, they chafe under the yoke imposed upon them…passing down from generation to generation a mournful heritage of hatred and revenge.” These words proved prophetic as the injustices of Versailles fueled the hatred that would bring about the Second World War.
Benedict was more successful in restoring peace closer to home. The war had demonstrated to both the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy that the Roman question needed to be finally resolved. In his encyclical “Pacem Dei Munus Pulcherrimum” (“On Peace and Christian Reconciliation,” 1920), he relaxed the ban his predecessors had imposed on visits to Rome by Catholic sovereigns and heads of state.
Benedict XV died in 1922 at the age of 67. While his time as pope was brief, his influence is evident in the next two pontificates. With a gift for discerning leadership abilities, Benedict appointed Achille Ratti, prefect of the Vatican Library, to the difficult position of nuncio to the restored nation of Poland. Ratti’s work there brought him the prominence that led to his election as Benedict’s successor. As Pope Pius XI, he continued Benedict’s efforts to improve the Holy See’s relationship with Italy, culminating in the Lateran Treaty that created Vatican City State and restored the papacy’s sovereignty and independence in 1929. Benedict also promoted the career of Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, to whom he entrusted the important position of nuncio to Bavaria and a key role in the attempt in 1917 to convene a peace conference. His experience in Germany exposed Pacelli to the challenges faced by German Catholics and would influence his actions in World War II. In that conflict he followed Benedict’s earlier example of maintaining neutrality and focusing on humanitarian relief.
Since Versailles, the world is still looking for a just and lasting peace. The lingering hatreds and injustices from World War I led to World War II, which in turn was succeeded by the Cold War. That conflict divided the nations of the world into western and eastern blocs and contributed to violence in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Today violence continues to plague the territories of the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Sarajevo, which witnessed the beginning of the First World War in 1914, was again torn by ethnic hatred in the 1990s during the Bosnian War. The numerous conflicts in the Middle East stem, at least in part, from decisions made by the victorious Allies in the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.
In the encyclical published in 1920, after Versailles, Benedict XV called on Christians to renounce vengeance, “to abandon hatred and to pardon offenses.” A century later his plea for peace has been taken up by Pope Francis who, in his call on Sept. 1, 2013, for a day of prayer and penance for peace in the Middle East, asserted: “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.”