On the last day of August 1914, the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel for the Conclave, exactly one month after the Great War had begun. Three days later on 3 September the world had a new pope: Benedict XV.
At the age of 6o, "the Archbishop of Bologna seemed like the right person for the job, according to Gianpaolo Romanato. He had "extensive diplomatic experience (although accrued in Spain, far away from the warring countries) and strong experience in the Curia". He had also served for seven years as Archbishop of Bologna, which enriched his pastoral experience.
In spite of this and his papacy that followed, the centenary of Benedict XV's election risks being overlooked. Pope Benedict is one of the least known Popes to have led the Church in the last century. In fact John Francis Pollard entitled the Pontiff's biography: The Unknown Pope. And, in some ways, this title seems to be justified, Francis Xavier Rocca of Catholic News Service wrote on 29 August. His 7- and-a-half-year pontificate was "relatively short and, with respect to his most prominent undertaking, spectacularly unsuccessful", according to the journalist.
Yet, Pope Benedict left a legacy for the Church through his role as an impartial interlocutor on matters of war and peace. After his election he immediately began a campaign against the ongoing war, eventually issuing a Peace Note on 1 August 1917, in which he invited both sides to set down their arms and to turn to international arbitration regarding the issues which had caused the war. These efforts, unfortunately, did not obtain a positive result, due also to weak Vatican diplomacy at that time. The Pope also launched, among other things, a widespread effort to aid prisoners of war and those displaced by the conflict, and laid the foundation for what are, today, the young Churches in formerly colonized countries.
In 1914 the Vatican enjoyed relations with only two of the great powers, Pollard said. "One was Austria-Hungary, the other was the Russian empire, and with the Russian empire, relations were pretty bad". President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, who led his nation into the war in 1917, evaded acknowledging the Pope's appeals. When the war ended in November 1918, the Vatican was not invited to the peace conference in Paris.
Despite these weaknesses, Pope Benedict XV prophetically criticized, the punitive treatment imposed on Germany, which subsequently prepared the ground for Adolf Hitler's ascent. Furthermore, Pollard also said that "by the time Benedict died in 1922, the Vatican had relations with nearly all of the great powers, including Germany, except America and except the USSR".
The Pontiff thus left a precious diplomatic legacy. Indeed, according to Romanato, "in the gallery of the 20th-century Popes, Benedict XV has, until now, remained in the shadows. However... the centrality of his pontificate is now understood".