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Who was Pope Benedict XIII?

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Three centuries have passed since Pier Francesco Orsini was elected pope on May 29, 1724, after a conclave lasting nearly three months, assuming the name Benedict XIII (†1730). This man, whose labors in favor of keeping and restoring ecclesiastical discipline and of ensuring the splendor of churches have been most known,”[1] also made contributions to sacred music during his pontificate.

A quick glance at his biography reveals that Pier Francesco Orsini was born 75 years earlier in Gravina in Puglia, southern Italy. He began his service in the Church by joining the Order of Preachers, also known as Dominican Friars, and quickly rose to prominence. Already at the age of 22, he was created cardinal and appointed Prefect of the Congregation of the Council in Rome. Subsequently, he held bishoprics in Manfredonia and Cesena before ascending to the position of metropolitan archbishop of Benevento at 36, a role he retained even after his papal election, a rarity in Church history.

As Pope, Benedict XIII stood out for his dedication to combating Jansenism and strengthening discipline within the clergy. He canonized Aloysius Gonzaga, Stanislaus Kostka, John of the Cross, John Nepomucene, and Margaret of Cortona. He demonstrated a strong bond with the archdiocese of Benevento, visiting it twice and convening a provincial council. During the Holy Year of 1725, he held a Roman provincial council in the Lateran Basilica (from April 15 to May 29) and promoted the construction of the Spanish Steps. Stricken by a bothersome flu, he peacefully passed away in Rome on February 21, 1730, after nearly six years of pontificate.

Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV († 1758), said of him:

He could not bear, unless compelled by necessity, to separate from his beloved flock and to stay away from it for a long time; which should be the primary care of a bishop […]. To visit a part of his diocese every year; to erect, restore, and renew magnificent churches; to consecrate altars for the celebration of the sacred mysteries; to establish pious confraternities; to found public hospitals and hospices for the sick; to alleviate the misery of the poor, not only with his ecclesiastical revenues, but more often with his own money; to break the delicious bread of the Gospel word to hungry souls; to convene new provincial councils and new synods; to publish the wise laws made in both; to administer the sacrament of confirmation himself; to practice the ceremonies of the Church; to be assiduous in all divine offices and to fulfill the functions of the divine ministry without ever tiring; such was his plan of life, such has always been his practice. All this heap of qualities represents him as a prelate so diligent, industrious, and indefatigable that there are very few who can be compared to him, and perhaps none who have coupled such great piety and zeal in all that concerns the worship and the divine service.[2]

Among Benedict XIII’s enduring legacies was his promotion of Gregorian chant as a primary form of liturgical expression. In the Roman Council of 1725, “tit. 15, no. 6, many decrees are read concerning the use of polyphonic singing and instruments during Advent, during Sundays of Lent, and during the exequies of the dead.”[3]

First of all, the importance of studying Gregorian chant for clerics was emphasized: “in optimis itaque se studiis, sacrisque litteris diligenter exerceant: sacros ritus, rubricas, et cæremonias calleant: cantum gregorianum addiscant: divinaque armonia in ecclesiis cum pietate obeant, et majestate,” that is, “Therefore, let them diligently engage in the best studies and in sacred letters; let them be familiar with sacred rites, rubrics, and ceremonies; let them learn Gregorian chant; let them obey the divine harmony in churches with piety and majesty.”[4] It was then established that those who were receiving ecclesiastical benefits should be preferred if they were competent in chant: “In canonicatibus vero, ut supra, conferendis, ceteris paribus, semper eos præferant, qui cantum callent gregorianum; et collatione ad sedem apostolicam spectante, de ejusdem cantus peritia mention fiat in testimonialibus, quæ concedentur”, that is, “In the conferment of canonries, therefore, all else being equal, always prefer those who are skilled in Gregorian chant; and when it comes to an application to the Apostolic See, mention shall be made of the competence in the same chant in the testimonials that are granted.”[5]

Additionally, Pope Orsini issued decrees prohibiting the use of instruments, including the organ, during the celebration of Masses for the dead and during the seasons of Advent and Lent, reaffirming the centrality of Gregorian chant.

Another noteworthy initiative was the restoration of the Stabat Mater in the liturgy. That poem is “a cry of pain that crosses the centuries; inspiring great painters and musicians, it made past generations cry and makes today’s generations cry. Indeed, the Muse of Jacopone has never appeared more human than in the divine elegy of Stabat Mater at the foot of the Cross.”[6]The sequence by the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi (†1306), which sings the heartfelt participation in the sorrow of Mary, present beneath the cross of Christ, and the Marian co-redemption, was part of the ancient office of the Friday before Palm Sunday and other liturgical celebrations, but it was abrogated by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). It was reintroduced into the Mass of Our Lady of Sorrows (September 15) by Pope Orsini in 1727. This practice remained even after the reform of the liturgy desired by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), although only as an optional choice. However, its spread and popularity increased, especially after it was included in the various stations of the Way of the Cross.

In conclusion, Benedict XIII’s papacy was characterized not only by his piety, simplicity, and rigorous leadership but also by his fervent advocacy for sacred music, notably Gregorian chant.

[1] Benedict XIV, Annus qui, February 19, 1749, no. 1.

[2] R. F. Rohrbacher, Storia universale della Chiesa cattolica dal principio del mondo fino ai dì nostri, Vol. 14, Turin 1876, p. 21; our translation.

[3] Benedict XIV, Annus qui, no. 13.

[4] Concilium Romanum, Rome 1725, p. 62; our translation.

[5] Ibidem, p. 25; our translation.

[6] E. Pardo Bazán, San Francisco de Asís, Parigi 1890, p. 531; our translation.

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