Pope Benedict XV whose time as Pontiff was overshadowed by the First World War
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The head of the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the War was Pope Pius X, but he died on September 3 1914, and Pope Benedict XV became the new Pontiff soon after.
He was 59 years of age when war broke out, and his pontificate was destined to remain in the shadow of the conflict for much of his time in office.
Benedict was above all a man of peace and he was deeply distressed with the ongoing carnage of the war. In November 1914 he issued a Papal Encyclical about the war situation in which he stated that the main belligerents were
“……well-provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, and they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly shed blood and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain.”
He went further and identified what he saw as the main drivers for the war that included “contempt for authority, the injustice in the relations between classes, the attainment of material goods made into the sole object of human activity, and the unrestrained striving after independence.”
On December 7th he made an international appeal for a Christmas truce so that “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”. His plea gathered considerable support, but the top-level politicians and military commanders were against the idea. They were worried that truces may also be declared for other significant dates such as Easter, the Kings birthday, national holidays, and eventually perhaps, the weekends.
Tragically his suggestion therefore was rejected by the warring parties and “business as usual” was the intention across the festive period. But the Pope had planted a seed, and the extraordinary events that followed on Christmas Day 1914 perhaps had some of their origins in the Pope’s idea.