On September 3, 1914, Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa, the Arch-Bishop of Bologna was elected to The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV and the Pursuit of Peace, John F. Pollard paints a favorable portrait of the pontiff during the Great War. Pollard argues that although Della Chiesa was relatively unknown, even to his fellow Cardinals, he was far from a dark horse candidate. His election was seen as a compromise between the ultra conservatives represented by Pope Pius X and the more liberal faction of Pope Leo XIII. Just five days after his election, Benedict XV issued his first call for peace.
the seat of St. Peter and took the name Pope Benedict XV. In
The war had noticeable effects on the Vatican. Travel restrictions, especially after Italy entered the war, essentially stopped transnational pilgrimages. The war also disrupted the flow of tithes from the parishes to Rome, causing financial hardships. Benedict professed neutrality, but the diplomatic situation for the Holy See was complicated to say the least. Traditionally, the Church had a close relationship with the Austrian monarch, who had until 1904 a veto over papal elections. Relations with Italy had been antagonistic since unification in 1870, and the Italian government intercepted and inspected all incoming and outgoing mail. Relations with England, France, and Russia were also poor for a variety of reasons. Benedict's efforts at mediation in 1917 also alienated England and France because they were interpreted as being too favorable to Germany (who incidentally was angry at the Pope for his condemnations of atrocities in Belgium). Pollard believes that Benedict XV acted in good faith, but that his position was somewhat compromised by an effort to prop up the doomed Austrian monarchy. Papal denunciations of atrocities against civilians, use of weapons of mass destruction, and the expansion of the war sadly fell on deaf ears. The most tangible impact Benedict XV had on the war, was in the treatment of prisoners of war, a cause the Pope took to heart. The Church arranged for chaplains, mail delivery, care packages, food, medical care, and an information clearinghouse for prisoners and their families.
In a 1920 encyclical, Pacem Dei Munus, the Pope displayed his displeasure with a peace settlement that he felt sorely lacking in Christian principles. Reparations, nationalism, and vulnerable successor states were among his criticisms of the Treaty of Versailles. He remained sensitive to human suffering and spent funds from the depleted Vatican treasury on famine relief in Russia in 1921. Conscious of the poor relations with the western allies, he made some efforts to improve relations with the English and French governments.
Although not a towering figure in Church history, Pope Benedict XV had some noticeable impacts, including taking the first steps towards the publication of the Catechism (although it would not be published until 1993!), reaching out to non-Catholic Christians, codifying canon law, and establishing native missionaries in Africa and Asia. A pious and generous man who could be irascible at times, Benedict XV died unexpectedly in 1922 at the age of 67.