Who Was Benedict XV?

Bruce West, in the Montreal Gazette (4-21-05):

The new head of the Catholic church is "carving his own space" by taking the name Pope Benedict XVI, one of Canada's leading church historians said yesterday.

"He has strategically not placed his name as being an immediate successor to John Paul II," said Mark McGowan, a professor of church history at the University of Toronto and principal of the university's St. Michael's College.

"He didn't take John Paul III. He wanted to distinguish himself from that pontificate. In some ways, this is rather an interesting choice," McGowan said.

But another expert cautioned against reading too much into the new pope's first major decision: choosing a name.

"You don't necessarily deduce anything from it," said William Oddie, former news editor of the Catholic Herald, a weekly newspaper published in London.

"Pope John XXIII, for instance, chose a name which had last been used by one of the most corrupt popes of the preceding centuries," Oddie said.

Benedict, from the Latin for "blessing," is one of a number of papal names of holy origin such as Clement ("mercy") and Pius ("pious").

In the 20th century, only one pope took the name Benedict. Born Giacomo della Chiesa, Benedict XV was pope from 1914 to 1922.

"Pope Benedict XV was one of those unusual popes who has essentially been lost in history because of the dynamism of the popes who came after him," McGowan said .

The pope was instrumental in the First World War for his attempt to broker a peace, he said.

But Benedict XV also was notable for proclaiming and enforcing the code of canon law or church doctrine, McGowan said.

The Benedict Before

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger chose as his name Benedict XVI. But who was Pope Benedict XV, and are there any clues to be found in his life and papacy to indicate why Ratzinger chose the name?

Benedict XV was born in 1854 and died in 1922 of pneumonia that developed out of influenza. He was pope from 1914 to 1922.

He was born Giacomo della Chiesa, to a noble Genovese family (della Chiesa means "of the church"). Had poor heath, was short, thin, and limped. One eye, one ear and one shoulder higher than the other.

Was very studious, solitary, introspective. Went to high school with diocesan priests at the Istituto Donavaro e Giiusso. Father would not let him begin priestly studies right away (it was an anti-clerical time).

Got doctorate in civil law from Royal University of Genoa in 1875. Studied for priesthood and trained for Vatican diplomatic service. When Cardinal Mariano Rampolla was appointed papal nuncio to Spain (1882), della Chiesa went with him as his secretary.

Helped people during cholera epidemic.

Pius X called him his "right arm in fighting modernism," yet his selection and reign contrasted with his predecessor, whose theological crackdown had roiled the church....

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