This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See digital samples, here.
The 57 cardinals who gathered in Rome on August 31, 1914, to elect the next pope had a daunting task. As one cardinal said, the man they chose had to be intelligent, diplomatic, and holy—but above all, he had to have a charity expansive enough to embrace the Church and the world. Only such a man could effectively speak to a world torn by war and deep political rivalries.
Some might have thought the man elected pope three days later lacked at least some of the desired qualities. The 59-year-old Cardinal Giacomo Giambattista Della Chiesa had spent most of his priestly life in the Holy See’s diplomatic service, until, in 1907, Pope Pius X had appointed him archbishop of Bologna. The aristocratic, shy Della Chiesa was not outwardly warm and friendly, as Pius X had been. As archbishop, he had seemed downright cold to some of his priests, and he had sternly demanded strict obedience of them. Yet, Archbishop Della Chiesa personally visited all the parishes in his diocese, even those in hard-to-reach mountain areas. Both in Rome and Bologna, he spent freely of his own private wealth to help poor
and needy families.
The new pope chose Benedict XV as his name—the first time in 156 years that any pope had not chosen the names Leo, Gregory, or Pius. Though he gave his cardinals no reason for his choice, the pope later said he had taken the name because he wanted to win “the new world for Christ through the intercession of St. Benedict.”
Pope Benedict lost no time setting out to win the world for Christ. Four days after his election, he called on the warring European powers “to be satisfied with the ruin already wrought” and to make peace. On November 1, the Feast of All Saints, the pope issued his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, in which he laid out the “aim” of his reign – “to strive in every possible way that the charity of Jesus Christ should once more rule supreme amongst men.”
The nations of Europe were at war, said Ad Beatissimi, because, “in the ruling of states,” governments had abandoned “Christian wisdom” and Christian moral ideals. Instead of seeking spiritual goods, men were “striving for transient and perishable things” — wealth, power, and false glory. These were “the causes of the serious unrest pervading the whole of human society.” But if these were the causes, what was the solution? A return to Christ and his charity. “All then must combine to get rid of [the causes of the unrest],” said the pope, “by again bringing Christian principles into honor.” Only through Christ would men “have any real desire for the peace and harmony of human society.”
The encyclical Ad Beatissimi was not the last time the pope spoke out about the war. Over the next four years, he called for peace while condemning the violence that was destroying Christendom. In several statements, Benedict called the war “an unparalleled scourge,” “a carnage which is without example,” “this monstrous spectacle,” “a horrible plague.” In December 1914, he called on the warring powers to observe at least a Christmas truce “to pierce this darkness of warring death with at least a ray, one ray of the divine sun of peace.”
But, instead of heeding the pope, the French and English criticized him because he did not condemn the Germans, and the Germans censured him for not condemning the French and English. Each side, in fact, thought the pope was supporting its enemy. Why did Benedict say nothing about the German invasion of Belgium, demanded the Allies? English newspapers had been printing accounts of horrible acts allegedly committed by Germans — why didn’t the pope condemn these? Benedict replied that since only the English and French were reporting German war crimes, he could not verify if the reports were true or not. (In fact, the reports of German atrocities were greatly exaggerated.)
Neither the Allies nor the Central Powers accepted Benedict’s explanation that he had to remain an “impartial” judge between the warring sides. “The Roman Pontiff, as Vicar of Jesus Christ, who died for men, one and all, must embrace all the combatants in one sentiment of charity,” Benedict said on January 22, 1915. “And as the Father of all Catholics he has among the belligerents a great number of his children for whose salvation he must be equally and without distinction solicitous.” Benedict said he would condemn “openly every injustice by whatever side it may have been committed.”
Probably the chief reason the warring powers ignored the pope was because he called for “peace without victory.” All sides must lay down their arms, said Benedict, even if they were not victorious in the “murderous struggle” and gained nothing from it. Each side, however, would accept peace only when its enemy was defeated. They wanted a “German peace” or an “English” or “French peace,” not what the pope demanded — the peace of Christ.
A secret treaty signed in London on April 26, 1915, between the Entente and Italy gave the Allies another reason to ignore Benedict. In this treaty, the Allies agreed to recognize Italy’s claims to Trentino, the South Tyrol, Trieste, Istria, and northern Dalmatia (all Austrian lands) if Italy joined the Allies. But Italy’s foreign minister, Sidney Sonnino, made his own demand — that the pope have no say in any talks to end the war. The Allies agreed and included Sonnino’s demand in the secret treaty.
On May 23, 1915, Italy declared war on her former ally Austria-Hungary, thus abandoning the Triple Alliance and openly joining the Entente. The Entente powers now would not discuss peace with the pope, for it would violate their treaty with Italy. A third, Italian front against the Central Powers was very useful to the Allies, so they were quite willing to ignore the pope’s calls for a just peace.
Music of an Eager Recruit
When in August 1914, the French-Basque composer, Maurice Ravel, learned that war had been declared, he hastened to complete a composition at which he had, theretofore, been working in dilatory fashion. He wanted to join the French army. He completed the piece, the Trio for Piano, Violin, and Violoncello in A minor, in September and then, a month later, joined the army. Here is a recording of the trio, performed by the Amsterdam Chamber Soloists.