On 3rd September 1914, following the outbreak of World War One, Benedict XV was elected pope. He immediately embarked on a number of projects to stop the war that he condemned as “the suicide of civilized Europe.”
In November 1914, Benedict published the first of his 12 encyclical letters. The greatest and wealthiest nations, he wrote, were “well-provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised.” He went on: “There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter as day by day the earth is drenched with newly shed blood and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and the slain.” He reminded all of Christ’s words, “A new commandment I give you: that you love one another.”
On December 7th 1914 Benedict pleaded with all sides to hold a Christmas truce, asking “that the guns fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang,” to allow for negotiations for an honourable peace. His plea was ignored, but there were informal truces along parts of the Western front.
Benedict also believed in action. He opened a Vatican office to reunite prisoners of war with their families and he tried to persuade neutral Switzerland to take in any combatants who were suffering from tuberculosis. While the Vatican’s bank balance was not healthy, he spent 82 million lire on relief work.
In July 1915, Benedict published a letter “To the Peoples Now at War and to Their Rulers.” The diplomacy that followed culminated two years later in a seven-point plan, or a peace note, as it was modestly termed. The peace note contained many of the suggestions of the 1915 letter, proposing a cessation of hostilities, a reduction of armaments, a guaranteed freedom of the seas, international arbitration, and Belgium restored to a guaranteed independence. All sides should forgo claims of compensation (the ignoring of which was to prove so disastrous a part of the Versailles Treaty that lead to WWII). Only Britain did not oppose the note outright and was willing to explore the possibilities. Germany’s initial interest was lost when the collapse of Russia made an Allied victory less likely. French President Georges Clemenceau simply viewed the proposals as evidence that the Vatican was anti-French!
Benedict failed to stop or curtail the war but two years before his unexpected death from pneumonia in 1922 at the age of 67 his efforts were recognised by the Muslim Turks who erected a statue of him in Istanbul to commemorate “the benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion.”
Had Europe heeded Pope Benedict’s repeated pleas, millions of lives would have been saved and probably neither Stalin nor Hitler would have come to power.