Benedict, Pope of Peace
A member of the college for less than a year before his election, della Chiesa chose the name Benedict. His mission wasn't just to guide the church's response to secular divisions, but to create peace within its own walls; Pius' famous crusades against "modernism" had done their part to subvert Catholic unity, and Benedict's first encyclical -- eerily prophetic on its own -- lamented the "dwelling on profitless questions" by ad intra circles and stated his "will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another."
...sound familiar to anyone?
Such terms "are to be avoided," the Pope said, "not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanas. Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself."
While Ad beatissimi apostolorum remains largely confined to the province of church historians and others particularly keen on the wisdom of the ages, one of Benedict XV's more memorable interventions in the wider arena was his "Note to the belligerent powers" of World War I -- the "Peace Note," which marks its 90th anniversary this week.
In an impromptu discourse to his electors following his own ascent to Peter's chair, the newly-elected Papa Ratzinger said he chose to be called Benedict XVI both as an homage to the great saint of that name, but also evoking the legacy and work of his wartime precessor. Both in last week's Sunday Angelus talk and again yesterday, the reigning Benedict touched heavily on the "Note," with its memorable appeal to halt the "useless slaughter" of so many, and a timely piece in this week's edition of The Tablet provides a load of context:
From the beginning of the conflict he had called passionately for the warring nations to stop fighting and negotiate; in 1915 he wrote a special prayer for peace which he ordered to be used at special days of prayer throughout the world; he also tried unsuccessfully to stop Italy from entering the war and condemned German atrocities committed during the war, especially in Belgium. His efforts and even-handedness earned him obloquy on both sides of the conflict: in France he was called le pape Boche, in Italy Maledetto XV and in Germany Der Franzoische Papst....sound familiar?
By the summer of 1917 the combatant nations seemed weary of the slaughter. Pope Benedict rightly perceived that any initiative would succeed only if Germany were prepared to make concessions. He sent Mgr Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) to Germany to see the Kaiser and his Chancellor. These meetings established the specific issues on which Germany would be prepared to negotiate peace: including the limitation of armaments, the setting up of international courts, negotiations about Alsace-Lorraine and, above all, the restoration of the independence of Belgium.
The note is sometimes known by its opening words in French, Des le Debut: “Since the beginning of our pontificate, in the midst of the horrors of the terrible war which has burst upon Europe, we have considered three things among others: to maintain an absolute impartiality towards all belligerents, as becomes him who is the common father, and who loves all his children with an equal affection; to endeavour continually to do the utmost good to all without distinctions of persons, nationality or religion, in accordance not only with the universal law of charity, but also with the supreme spiritual duty laid upon us by Christ; and finally, as is demanded by our pacific mission, to omit nothing, as far as it in our power lies, to contribute to hasten the end of this calamity by trying to bring the peoples and their leaders to more moderate resolutions in the discussion of means that will secure a ‘just and lasting peace’.” He proposed that the rule of law be restored and that the moral force of right replace the material force of arms. This needed to be done in three stages: first, fighting should be suspended; second, there should be a reduction in armaments “according to rules and guarantees to be established to the extent necessary and sufficient for the maintenance of public order in each State”; third, there should be international arbitration “on lines to be determined and with sanctions to be settled against any State that should refuse either to submit international questions to arbitration or to accept its awards”. He called for occupied territories to be restored, negotiations to settle territorial disputes, the free movement of peoples and common rights over the seas. Demands for reparations and indemnities should be renounced. In addition to the points already agreed in Germany, of note are the provisions for the renunciation of indemnities and the freedom and community of the seas; as can be seen Benedict set out detailed plans for negotiations in relation to Belgium, Poland, the Balkan states and Armenia.
The initiative failed: no one on the Entente side showed any interest. Britain, still a country in which much of the establishment was anti-Catholic, did not even show the Holy See the common courtesy of a proper reply. Much hostility to the pope’s initiative was shown in France and Italy, and the rejection on behalf of the alliance was made by United States President Woodrow Wilson, who had initially remarked of the pope: “What does he want to butt in for?"
There were also problems on the other side: in spite of the eagerness of the Habsburg Emperor Charles for peace, (he was beatified by John Paul II in 2004), by this time Austria-Hungary was almost entirely dependent on Germany and incapable of independent action. In Germany itself, by the time the note was issued there had been a change of government and the High Command were less interested in a negotiated peace and in giving up Belgium. Benedict said that its rejection was the bitterest moment of his life.
What is disturbing is the extent to which the Pope was not supported by those who would naturally be expected to be his closest collaborators: the bishops and other influential Catholics in the belligerent countries.
Pope Benedict simply did not accept that for either side the First World War could be justified in terms of traditional Christian teaching. The scale of the conflict and the enormity of suffering caused by modern methods of warfare showed that Christian approaches to war had to “move on”: he taught that the war was a “horrible carnage that dishonours Europe” and that because of it the world had become a “hospital and a charnel house”. He had no time for the ideologies that made this conflict noble and glorious....sound familiar?
You get the idea.
On his trip to Turkey late last year, Benedict XVI visited a statue of his predecessor erected in tribute outside the cathedral of the Saint-Esprit in Istanbul.
The inscription on its base reads: “To the great Pope of the world’s tragic hour, Benedict XV, benefactor of the people, without discrimination of nationality or religion, a token of gratitude from the Orient.”