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Benedict XV: Ratzinger’s Namesake and Promoter of Music

A century ago, on January 22, 1922, the Pope of Peace died at the age of 67: Benedict XV, whose original name was Giacomo Della Chiesa.

Born in Genoa, northwestern Italy, to a noble family on November 21, 1854, at the age of 20 he graduated in law, at 24 he was a priest, at 28 secretary of the apostolic nuncio in Madrid, at 32 minutant and at 46 substitute of the Secretariat of State, at 53 archbishop of Bologna for seven years, at 59 he was created cardinal and three months later elected pope.

This great figure of the twentieth century is unfairly overlooked. There was a return of interest when Benedict XVI, at the beginning of his pontificate, said:

I wanted to be called Benedict XVI in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War. He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace and strove with brave courage first of all to avert the tragedy of the war and then to limit its harmful consequences.[1]

Most remember Benedict XV for his opposition to the First World War, to “the gloomiest tragedy of human hatred and human insanity.”[2] They recall the author of the Apostolic Exhortation Dès le début, sent on August 1, 1917, to the belligerent peoples and to their leaders, in which he indicated particular solutions, suitable for putting an end to “the terrible struggle which more and more seems to be a useless slaughter.”

To look closely, however, there is much to talk about in his short pontificate, which lasted just over seven years. In fact, as Cardinal Giuseppe Siri (1906-1989), archbishop of Genoa, wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Benedict XV: “If anyone rises to scrutinize him thoroughly, he will do justice to the great pope and make history more honest.”[3] Glancing through the many fields in which the Genoese pope worked, we encounter: the relationship with the Eastern world, establishing a special Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Church and founding in Rome the Pontifical Oriental Institute for Eastern Christian Studies; the problem of missions, promoting the autonomous organization of local churches in mission territories and liberation from political and economic conditioning by European nations; the Modernist question, solving it with prudence; ecclesiastical discipline, promulgating the Code of Canon Law, wanted by St. Pius X; sacred music.

If St. Pius X can be defined as the great pope of sacred music, Benedict XV also has relevant merits for the reform decreed by Papa Sarto. Many times he encouraged its application with his word and with his generous hand: at the beginning of his pontificate, on September 23, 1914, receiving the representatives of the Italian Association of Saint Cecilia and of the Pontifical Higher School of Sacred Music in Rome; in audiences with bishops and music lovers; blessing new sacred music institutions in the United States and in Spain and sending messages to participants in liturgy or sacred music congresses.

The Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, established by St. Pius X in 1910 and opened on January 3, 1911, was actually founded by Benedict XV, who on July 10, 1914, with a rescript of the Secretariat of State, declared it Pontifical and granted it the power to confer academic degrees. After a fire that broke out on the evening of November 22, 1914, in its first modest location in via del Mascherone, 55, near piazza Farnese in Rome, the school, thanks to Benedict XV, moved, perhaps on March 15, 1915, to the Palazzo dell’Apollinare, then the seat of the Vicariate of Rome.

On May 7, 1915, Benedict XV granted the first audience to the Pontifical School. After having encouraged it to continue “steadily along the way it began,” to develop, improve and keep itself “worthy of the most noble traditions of the Roman Pontifical Institutes,” he adds:

Our encouragement has so far been limited to giving more rooms and more dignified premises to the School; but We hope, in better circumstances, to be able to contribute to giving it greater impetus and more vigorous development.[4]

An active part of this development was taken by the Auxiliary Committee to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, founded early 1915 in New York by the writer and musician Justine Ward (1879-1975), with the dual purpose of restoring sacred music in the United States and to support the Pontifical School in Rome. Together with another American benefactress, Herbert D. Robbins, Ward donated the great organ Tamburini, opus 74, with 20 stops on three manuals and pedal, located in the Institute’s historic Gregory XIII Hall, the Academic Hall or Aula Magna, inaugurated on November 6, 1921 by the famous organist and composer Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925), who performed for the first time his Tre momenti francescani op. 140 (listen below).[5]

Finally, regarding the interest of the pope of Genoese origin for sacred music, we must not forget his letter Non senza vivo of September 19, 1921, sent to Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli (1836-1930), Bishop of Ostia and Palestrina and Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, on the occasion of the inauguration of the statue of Giovanni Pierluigi in Palestrina. In it Benedict XV attaches great importance “to promote ever more that fervor or musical restoration, which, happily initiated by Our predecessor of venerable memory, in the first year of his pontificate, spread and intensified in all regions of catholicity.” He did not want the fervor ignited by the “wise rules” of his predecessor to cool down, “especially as regards the classical polyphony, which, as very well said, achieved the maximum of its perfection in the Roman School through the work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.”


Photo: public domain. 

[1] Benedict XVI, General Audience, April 27, 2005.

[2] Benedict XV, Homily, July 30, 1916.

[3] J. F. Pollard, Il papa sconosciuto. Benedetto XV, 1914-1922, e la ricerca della pace, San Paolo, Milan 2001, p. 5.

[4] Il primo decennio della Pontificia Scuola Superiore di musica sacra in Roma, in La Civiltà cattolica, quad. 1674, Rome 1920, p. 528.

[5] Cf. E. Cominetti, Marco Enrico Bossi, Gioiosa Editrice, Sannicandro Garganico 1999, pp. 49, 110.

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