20 April 2005

What's in a name?

Pope Benedict XV
His pontificate was dominated by the war, which he termed 'the suicide of Europe', and its turbulent aftermath. His early call for a Christmas truce in 1914 was ignored, and though he organised significant humanitarian efforts (establishing a Vatican bureau, for instance, to help prisoners of war from all nations contact their families) and made many unsuccessful attempts to negotiate peace, his effectiveness even in Italy was undermined by his pacifist stance. The best known was the seven-point Papal Peace proposal of August 1917, demanding a cessation of hostilities, a reduction of armaments, guaranteed freedom of the seas, and international arbitration. Only Woodrow Wilson responded directly, declaring that a declaration of peace was premature; in Europe each side saw him as biased in favour of the other and were unwilling to accept the terms he proposed. This resentment resulted in the exclusion of the Vatican from the Paris peace conference of 1919; despite this, he wrote an encyclical pleading for international reconciliation, Pacem Dei munus.

In the post-war period Benedict was involved in developing the Church administration to deal with the new international system that had emerged.

In internal Church affairs, Benedict calmed the excesses of the campaign against 'modernist' scholars within the Church that had characterised the reign of Pius X, though his first encyclical condemned errors in modern philosophical systems and no excommunicated scholars were returned to the faith.

Benedict also promulgated a new Code of Canon Law in 1917 and attempted to improve relations with the anticlerical Republican government of France by canonising the French national heroine Joan of Arc. In the mission territories of the Third World, he emphasised the necessity of training native priests to replace the European missionaries as soon as possible, and established a Coptic college in the Vatican.

In his private spiritual life, Benedict was devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all the modern Popes was the most fervent in propagating the wearing of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, endorsing the claim that wearing it piously brings 'the singular privilege of protection after death' from eternal damnation, and giving an indulgence for every time it was kissed.

Benedict, 'blessed', is a really interesting choice of name. I'd expected Pope Benedict XVI to name himself John Paul III if elected. The new pope has a grim reputation, but perhaps he is telling us something by taking the name of a pope who moderated the rigours of the pope before him. Hope, I guess, springs eternal.

I'll never say: 'Who goes in a pope, comes out a cardinal' again. (Well, at least until the next conclave)

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