Benedict XV: the Pope of Peace by John F. Pollard.
If you glanced too quickly at the title of this book, you might have mistaken it for one more book on our new pope. A closer look reveals it to be a biography on Pope Benedict XV and not on Benedict XVI. Benedict XV was pope from 1914 to 1922. He too chose the name “Benedict” to show that he was breaking from the Piuses and Leos of his time just like our new pope has done by breaking from the Johns and Pauls of his times. Neither did this to condemn their predecessors, but to show that they are their own man. Both popes chose that name because they wanted to imitate St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism. The saint was also known as a man of peace and both popes sought to follow the same path.
Benedict XV was elected pope as World War I was beginning and he hoped to foster peace. Unfortunately neither side was really interested in listening to the pope as they had their own agendas.
At the same time he was a quasi-prisoner of the Vatican, as had his predecessors since 1870 when the newly created nation of Italy took over Rome and the Papal States. Members of the Italian government did not agree on what to do with the pope. Some wanted to create a small independent state for him while others did not want anything for the pope. This issue was known in history as the Roman Question. The anti-clerical elements of the Italian government opposed the pope’s attempts to bring peace to Europe as it might legitimize his role as a head of state. The Roman Question would not be resolved until 1929 during Pius XI's pontificate.
Pollard’s very readable book was originally published in 1999 and has been re-published due to the election of Benedict XVI and the increased interest in his predecessor. Pollard had access to Benedict XV’s family archives, his diaries and letters, and also the Vatican Archives which previous biographers lacked.
Benedict pushed for leniency for the defeated Germany as he feared what impact such treatment have. His fears were realized with World War II.
(Br. Benet Exton, O.S.B., writes from St. Gregory’s University, Shawnee, Oklahoma.)