The fascinating history of the many popes who had the name Benedict
July 18, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – We have seen countless times the Roman numerals “XVI” after the name of Pope Benedict, yet do we ever pause to ask how much we know about the fifteen Benedicts who took that name prior to Joseph Ratzinger?
The first pope to bear the name Benedict reigned from 575 to 579, and, well, there is nothing remarkable to report about his pontificate. The second Benedict reigned less than a year (684–685). Benedict V reigned only a month in 964, if you take the view of Emperor Otto I who had him deposed in favor of Leo VIII. A decade later (974), the unfortunate Benedict VI was strangled by the command of his enemies. Benedict VIII (1012–1024) was forced by antipope Gregory VI to flee Rome for part of his pontificate; he enjoys the glory of having rallied troops to repel the invidious Saracens.
With Benedict IX, who occupied the office three separate times (1032–1044, 1045, and 1047–1048) and was the only man who dared to sell his office to another bidder, we undoubtedly reach a low water mark in papal history. Numerous clerics, including bishops, popes, and a Doctor of the Church, St. Peter Damian, accused Benedict IX of “rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts.” Not edifying, to be sure, but also helpful in making us see that, in spite of human evils, our Lord Jesus Christ, the everlasting Head of the Church, remains always in charge and never deserts His Church. After much corruption there always comes a movement of reform.
Although Benedict X (1058–59) is generally regarded as an antipope, the numbering of subsequent Benedicts always included him, so the official register skips from IX to XI. Benedict XI (1303–1304), a member of the Dominicans and formerly their Master General, was the last pope prior to the so-called “Babylonian captivity” of 1309–1377 when the popes dwelt in the town of Avignon rather than in Rome.
After this rather dreary catalog, we come to Benedict XII (1334–1342), who, though an Avignon pope, was a Cistercian monk of lofty theological interests and reforming zeal. His quaintly-named papal bull Benedictus Deus of 1336 dogmatically defined that the souls of the just, after they have been purified, are immediately advanced to the beatifying vision of God—there is no “delay,” as if they had to await the general resurrection or the general judgment. (In making this dogmatic definition, Benedict XII was opposing an error that had been promoted by his predecessor John XXII.)
We leap centuries ahead with Benedict XIII (1724–1730), an ascetical Dominican of reforming intentions but evidently little skill in ruling. In passing, it might be noted that abundant good intentions do not automatically make a prudent, effective, or canonizable pope.
Benedict XIV (1740–1758), on the other hand, is a most intriguing figure. A rare combination of learned scholar and successful diplomat, Prospero Lambertini earned two doctorates (theology and law) and, as pope, managed to conciliate nations that demanded the right to nominate bishops. Before ascending the papal throne, Lambertini authored a sizeable treatise on beatification and canonization that quickly established itself as the standard work in this area—a place it still occupies today, although the time is certainly ripe for renewed theological attention, especially on the controversial question of the non-infallibility of canonizations.
As pope, Benedict XIV showed great sympathy toward Eastern rites and legislated to preserve them from Latinization. He spoke out eloquently in defense of the rights of native Americans. He investigated the history of episcopal synods and their function. He introduced many reforms in seminary education, encouraged scientific endeavors and counseled an open-minded approach to contemporary thought, patronized the universities, restored or completed public monuments (such as the Trevi Fountain), and initiated the cataloguing of the immense Vatican Library. Although his openness to some trends of the Enlightenment met with criticism, Benedict XIV was hardly the puppet of his age. He vehemently condemned usury in the encyclical Vix Pervenit (1745) and placed Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws on the Index of Prohibited Books.
All this brings us to Benedict XV, “the Pope of Peace,” after whom, along with St. Benedict of Nursia, Joseph Ratzinger told us that he wished to be named. In spite of the fact that this pope reigned less than a hundred years ago—from 1914 to 1922—he is surely one of the least known of modern popes.
Giacomo della Chiesa, as he was called until 1914, was born in Genoa in 1854, undertook advanced studies in law and theology, entered the papal diplomatic service, and rendered noteworthy service as under-secretary of state for St. Pius X, who made him archbishop of Bologna in 1907 and cardinal in 1914. It was to prove a short cardinalate.
Benedict’s pontificate was consumed from start to finish with matters of war and peace. He expended himself in every possible effort to stay, stall, or mitigate the “Grear War,” and when he saw with anguish that the bloodshed could not be stopped, he turned his attention to organizing humanitarian relief on an unprecedented scale—maintaining, as befits the common father of Christians, a strict political neutrality that was, predictably, turned against him by both the Germans and the Allies. In this regard his reputation suffered, as that of Pius XII continues to suffer, from the breadth and impartiality of his own charity.
As an experienced diplomat and a thoughtful observer of world events, Benedict XV knew and stated very clearly that the only hope for avoiding still worse wars in Europe consisted in a peace process based not on vindictiveness but on a self-sacrificing regard for the good of the many nations, even the defeated ones. Unfortunately his repeated attempts to influence the peace process after the armistice proved largely ineffectual; the “peace” that was concluded at the Paris Peace Conference was more a cloak for the victors’ revenge than a forward-looking plan for international cooperation. As we know from hindsight, it sowed the seeds for World War II.
Benedict XV lauded the noble intentions behind the League of Nations but recognized, as did his successor Pius XI, that it could never be more than a poor substitute for the sacred confederation of peoples that constituted Christendom. Something similar may be said today of the United Nations, which, however praiseworthy its original goals may have been, has degenerated into a mechanism for promoting the agenda of hyperliberalism.
In the end, Benedict XV offered up his life for the intention of world peace as he died on January 22, 1922. Can we now see more clearly why, in an age marked by a resurgence of jihadism, nationalistic conflicts, civil wars, and poorly justified invasions, not to mention battles within the Church over her very identity, mission, and liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s thoughts turned, at the moment of his election, toward his predecessor Giacomo della Chiesa?