A Look at Pope's Namesake

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, a longtime confidante of John Paul II and guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, was elected Tuesday as the new pontiff of the Roman Catholic church.

When a man is elected pope, the cardinal dean asks him two questions. First, the candidate is asked if he accepts the office. If that's a "yes," he's then asked what name he wants to be known by as pope. Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name of Benedict XVI. A new pope often picks the name of his favorite saint or pope to honor him by following in his steps during his papacy.

Who was Benedict XV?

Pope Benedict XV was born on Nov. 21, 1854, near Genoa, Italy. His birth name was James della Chiesa. His parents were of the nobility and his mother was related to Pope Innocent II (1404-06).

As a child, della Chiesa was very thin and of delicate health. Some dubbed him "the midget" even after he became pope. His father insisted that even priests needed a profession so della Chiesa delayed his clerical studies and got a doctorate in civil law. He became a priest in 1878 and, four years later, he joined the papal diplomatic service. In 1907, della Chiesa was made archbishop of Bologna.

Benedict XV's Short Reign

Pius X made him a cardinal in May 1914 and within three months he was elected pontiff. Della Chiesa led each ballot in the conclave and was elected on Sept. 3, 1914.

From the beginning, Benedict XV struggled for peace in the world. The first four years and two months of his reign were the years of the First World War. He had been elected because he favored neither side.

He made repeated appeals to end the war. In August 1917, he circulated peace proposals to all the belligerents. They were rejected, both sides being now determined to achieve an "absolute victory."

The Search for Peace

While publicly the countries at war made evasive replies, in private their response was almost wholly negative. Both sides treated his intervention as presumptuous. Pressed to condemn atrocities, he did so with a conscious effort to be non-partisan. The failure of the peace effort was the greatest disappointment of his pontificate.

The sincerity of Benedict's humanitarianism was demonstrated in his untiring efforts to relieve the sufferings of the war. He founded a bureau for the exchange of wounded prisoners and a missing-persons bureau and established relief agencies. So generous was he in such activities that at his death the Holy See was virtually bankrupt.

Benedict's diplomatic activism brought the number of countries represented at the Holy See up to 26, from 14. The Vatican also became recognized as an important center of international intelligence.

Church Matters

Benedict promulgated the new code of canon law largely prepared during the reign of Pius X, his predecessor. He canonized Joan of Arc, which was an occasion for re-establishing friendly relations with France. Strongly anti-socialist, he was planning an encyclical on communism, which was never completed. He envisioned a universal Catholic catechism but was unable to take steps toward that goal during his brief pontificate.

In 1917, the pope established the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Church, with himself as prefect, his concern for Eastern catholics having been one of his principal motives.

Possibly Benedict's most important act was to remove Monsignor Achilles Ratti from the position of prefect of the Vatican Library in 1918, and send him as his personal representative to Poland. Without this, Ratti would probably not have been elected pope four years later. A similar example of Benedict's perception is his selecting Eugenio Pacelli to organize the prisoner-of-war work at the Vatican, and subsequently sending him as nuncio to Munich. Two future popes owed their vital experiences to Benedict's eye for talent.


Benedict's final illness lasted only a few days, the result of influenza which turned into pneumonia. The Holy See had to borrow money to pay for the funeral, the conclave and the coronation of Pius XI.

Sources: New Catholic Encyclopedia, "The Popes" edited by Eric John.