Pietro Francesco Orsini was born in 1649 to the aristocratic Orsini family that had two popes in its ancestry: Celestine III and Nicholas III. Despite great opposition from his relatives, he renounced his inheritance and joined the Dominican order at Venice. He was eighteen years of age. At the request of his family but much against his own will, Clement X named him cardinal priest. He lectured in philosophy at Brescia. Later, when given the choice of two dioceses to govern, he chose the poorer and became archbishop of Manfredonia in 1675, bishop of Cesena in 1680, and finally, archbishop of Benevento in 1686 where he remained for nearly forty years. Orsini was devoted to his pastoral duties and lived the life of a simple friar. He eventually held several provincial and diocesan synods and found time to publish works of ascetic and practical theology.
After the death of Innocent XIII in May of 1724, a conclave lasting a mere three weeks unanimously elected him with the monarchical powers all in agreement that his lack of political expertise would insure his neutrality and their own dominance. As a Dominican, Orsini was called Vincenzo Maria. He had no desire to be chosen pope but he accepted his role in obedience to the general of his order. Taking the name of Benedict XIII, he made no changes in his monastic lifestyle even going so far as to shun the splendor of the Vatican apartments. He remained archbishop of his beloved Benevento and visited there in 1727 and 1729. In Rome, he concentrated on his role as bishop. He took particular interest in consecrating churches, visiting the sick, administering sacraments and giving religious instruction. He was concerned for clerical discipline and protested vehemently the extravagances he saw. He banned the wearing of wigs and beards. He banned the profitable public lottery in the Papal States, although all this did was to gain funds for neighboring states where people chose to gamble instead. He had a special jail built for transgressors of disciplinary rules.
For the Jubilee Year of 1725 he opened the staircase of the Piazza di Spagna which joined the piazza below with the church of Trinita dei Monti above. At this time he personally conducted a provincial synod in the Lateran and circulated its decisions immediately with the expectation that the bishops would eagerly implement its pastoral ideals.
Benedict’s primary focus as pontiff was the religious duties he had assumed. Unfortunately, that decision left a void in matters of state. For this reason, although he retained Fabrizio Paolucci as Secretary of State, he placed unwavering trust in Niccolo Coscia, the secretary he brought with him to Rome from Benevento. Benedict made him cardinal and entrusted to him all the political and financial affairs of the Papal State. Unworldly himself, the pope would not believe what he came to hear about Coscia who abused his authority and enriched himself to the detriment of the papacy. Coscia promoted like-minded self-seekers from Benevento to influential positions. Upon the death of Paolucci, he had one of his own named the new secretary of state. Their policy was to isolate the pope from the other cardinals and systematically enrich themselves by selling offices and accepting bribes. In the end no one advised the pope but these corrupt and unscrupulous men. After Benedict’s death, they were imprisoned by the new papacy but they were never held financially accountable for their greed and theft. Coscia was later to take part in the conclaves of 1730 and 1740.
The collapse of the finances of the Papal States explains the ease with which Victor Amadeus II obtained his royal title despite papal disapproval. It explained his rights over all the bishoprics in Sardinia. In 1727 the king won even more concessions and amply rewarded Coscia for them. Similarly agents of Charles VI were able to wield effective control over church affairs in Sicily. In one instance, however, Benedict was not affected by Coscia’s influence. He refused to make the nuncio to Lisbon a cardinal and in so doing he risk a schism.
Like his predecessors Benedict continued to oppose the claims of the Jansenists in France and upheld the condemnation of the 1713 bull, Unigenitus Dei Filius. The curia was also able to secure the submission of Cardinal de Noailles, archbishop of Paris. Benedict opposed the adoption of Chinese rites in the tradition of his predecessors.
Benedict consecrated at least 139 new bishops for various important European sees, including German, French, English and New World bishops. They in turn consecrated bishops almost exclusively for their respective countries causing other episcopal lineages to die. Today, more than 90% of present-day bishops trace their episcopal lineage through Pope Benedict to Cardinal Rebiba who had consecrated the pope.
Benedict left the church a precious legacy: he approved of the congregation of the Cross and Passion of Our Lord founded by St. Paul of the Cross. He also canonized John of the Cross and Aloysius Gonzaga.
The more Benedict devoted himself to being a pastor to his people, the feebler his grip on secular affairs became. The result of this was papal ineffectiveness outside of Church concerns. It highlights the complexity of the pontificate in general and of this pontificate specifically.
For all his pastoral goodness, Benedict was not popular with the Roman people because of his ill-conceived trust in Cardinal Coscia and his misappropriation of the finances of the Papal States. When the pope died, the people vented their fury on the Beneventans who were lucky to escape with their lives.
Benedict died in 1730 and was buried in a tomb in Santa Maria sopra Minerva by Pietro Bracci. He is represented as an old man absorbed in private prayer. He was eighty-one years of age.