Pope Benedict’s election to the papacy occurred in September 1914, just months after the start of WW I. His seven year papacy was marked by what he referred to as a horrendous bloodbath which dishonors Europe, and the suicide of civilized Europe–the darkest tragedy of human hatred and human madness; a useless massacre.
Giacomo della Chiesa was born in Genoa in 1854, the sixth child of an old aristocratic family with familial ties to popes in the distant past. His desire to become a priest was initially thwarted by his father who insisted he study civil law. In 1875 he received a doctorate in law from Genoa University. He was twenty-one years of age. At this point he again asked for and was given his father’s reluctant blessing to study for the priesthood. He attended Capranica College in Rome and the Gregorian University where he received additional doctorates in theology and canon law.
Della Chiesa was ordained in December 1878. What followed were four years of training for the papal diplomatic service at the Academy for Nobles. In 1883 he became the secretary to Mariano Rampolla, nuncio to Spain. He had caught the eye of the nuncio while still a student and now assisted him in diplomatic ventures as diverse as the successful mediation between Germany and Spain of the Caroline Islands, and the organization of relief efforts during a cholera epidemic. Della Chiesa’s career followed the soon-to-be Cardinal Rampolla’s who became Leo XIII’s Secretary of State and the architect of the Pope’s foreign policy. Della Chiesa not only served as under-secretary during Leo’s reign but continued in that role under Pius X’s Secretary of State, Merry del Val in 1903. However, Pius X’s papacy was in stark contrast to his predecessor’s.
In 1907, Pius consecrated della Chiesa archbishop of Bologna. Although he gave the new archbishop his own episcopal ring and crosier at this time, Bologna was seen as a place of exile and an attempt to thwart della Chiesa’s advancement because he did not agree with Pius’ retrograde policies. The new bishop had no previous pastoral experience but took on the tasks of a diocese with 700,000 people and 750 priests, nearly 100 religious institutes and a seminary. In the seven years he remained in Bologna he visited all the parishes, many on horseback. He was dedicated to his people and priests and believed preaching was his main obligation. He also built and restored churches and reformed the education of seminarians by adding science and the classics to the curriculum. Della Chiesa was devoted to Mary and preached about her and organized pilgrimages to her shrines. Shortly after the death of Cardinal Rampolla, Pius X elevated della Chiesa to the cardinalate in May of 1914.
Three months later, amidst the onset of The Great War, Pius X died of complications of pneumonia. Fifty-seven cardinals gathered in a conclave that took only three days and ten ballots to choose between the progressive policies of the diplomatic Pope Leo XIII and the renunciatory ones of Pius X. Knowing they would need an experienced diplomat to chart a course through this devastating era, they elected della Chiesa. He chose the name Benedict XV in honor of another Bolognese bishop, Lambertini, who became Benedict XIV. He was fifty-nine years of age and would rule for only seven years.
Papal Artifacts remembers and honors this man for a lifetime given to God and for the outpouring of his life in an effort to bring peace and sustenance to a war-ravaged continent.
The Saint Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor) of Leipzig, Germany