The forgotten pope and the Christmas truce
Thursday 19 November 2019
With the outbreak of the First World War, Pope St Pius X was said to have died of a broken heart.
Following his death, the College of Cardinals elected Archbishop Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa, who was only 59, to the Papacy. The new pope—who had only been a cardinal for a few months—took the name Benedict XV and faced a world at war on such a scale it was deemed ‘The War to End All Wars’.
Benedict XV was an interesting choice. He was small and slight, wearing the smallest cassock prepared for the election of the Pope. His nickname was ‘Il Piccoletto’ (The Little Man).
While being dignified and courtly (from his great experience as an ambassador and as part of the diplomatic corps), he was also known for his prominent teeth and a sallow complexion. He was not the image of the glorious monarchic pontiff whose head seemed incomplete without the grand triple crown. Rather, everything about him seemed awkwardly set. Neither did he seem to be a great scholar or writer. Yet the Cardinals of that Conclave clearly recognised the need for someone who could navigate the difficult diplomatic waters of the early twentieth century consumed by a war of unprecedented scale.
Following the reign of Pius X, Benedict XV had very great papal red shoes to fill.
Modern commentators label him as a ‘pastoral Pope’. As Archbishop of Bologna, he made sure to visit all the parishes in his diocese, especially those in isolated areas only reachable by horseback. He would preach at least twice per visit and emphasise to those in charge the importance of chapels and churches being kept clean and saving money where possible, so as to give it to the poor. Indeed, his generosity was well known. As Pope, he supposedly drew from his own personal revenue and savings first to help all those who asked for assistance. His aides would recommend those who met him not to recount their financial woes when they knew he was short on money because he would inevitably feel guilty that he could not help.
At his death, the Vatican treasury was severely depleted (supposedly to the equivalent of $19,000 USD) because Benedict XV threw the Church into working towards the alleviation of famine and humanitarian efforts after the war. A Vatican office was established to facilitate the reunion families with POWs, he worked to persuade Switzerland (who was neutral in the conflict) to take combatants suffering from Tuberculous. He worked to support the ‘Save the Children’ fund and established a collection to be taken up on the Feasts of the Holy Innocents to support works to relieve widespread famine.
Pope Benedict XV
He was regarded by many as the ‘Pope of Peace’, who tried to find a diplomatic and just negotiation to the end of the Great War. In Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, he described the wealthy nations as armed with ‘the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, and they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror.’
Since he was neutral in the conflict—which he said was only appropriate, since he was the common father and loved his children with equal affection—he proposed a plan to work towards peace. However, since it called for the forgoing of compensation on all sides unlike the Versailles Treaty which demanded compensation from Germany, it was rejected.
American President Woodrow Wilson declared that achieving peace through Benedict XV’s proposed ‘Seven point peace plan’, would be impossible; but later used Benedict XV’s points in his own ‘14 point peace plan’. The Allies also made a treaty that excluded the Vatican from any peace negotiations in 1915.
One can’t help but wonder what difference it would have made to history if Benedict XV—both skilled diplomat and humanitarian—had been there. During the Great War, Benedict XV repeatedly called for peace and these calls often fell on ears deafened by the sounds of nationalism and warfare.
Then on 7 December 1914, Benedict made a plea that those at war hold a Christmas Truce, asking ‘that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang’. Officially, such a plea was not even considered —war had no time for Christmas. Canons would fire, men would slosh and huddle in trenches, carols would not be sung and games would not be played.
Then a strange thing happened: across the Western Front, on Christmas Eve and Day, a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires broke out. Canons fell silent and men called out Christmas greetings to each other. They would meet on No-Man’s land to join together for joint burials of the fallen, swap prisoners, exchange food and gifts to each other. Carols were sung. Perhaps most memorable of the images of the 1914 Christmas Truce were the pictures of men playing soccer in No-Man’s Land.
Needless to say, not all were pleased.
In the following year, despite some attempts of various units to organise another ceasefire at Christmas, the commanding officers of armies on both sides strictly forbade fraternisation (although some did manage to have a truce again). By 1916, with the war becoming much more bitter from the use of poison gas and devastating loss of life as the war dragged on, all desire for a truce faded.
Yet Benedict XV had much for which to be proud.
His call for peace—increasingly reflecting the desires of the people—still rang out over Europe as the war grew in intensity. And at Christmas, while the pope was ignored and sidelined by leaders around the world, soldiers listened, put aside their guns and took hold of their common humanity with those they were fighting. On the Celebration of Christ’s Birth, where God became Man, mankind took a moment to reflect on their common humanity—even over a game of soccer or swapping buttons and tins of food as presents with a foe during war.
Despite not being a well-known event, curiously it is commemorated in some unusual ways, notably the Christmas song ‘Snoopy’s Christmas’ which made it to number one in 1967 on the Australian and New Zealand single charts and is still played in the shopping centres as we frantically get last-minute gifts.
At this time when we prepare to celebrate Christmas, perhaps spare a thought for those serving in the military and at war, removed from their families. With the chaos that Christmas can bring perhaps it is good for us also to declare a Christmas truce. That with the stress and frustrations we find ourselves in during all the Christmas festivities, we can also stop and let the guns in our hearts and the bullets that fly from our lips fall silent at least on the night the angels sang.
Fr Nathan Rawlins is Assistant Priest St Peter's Epping.
This article originally appeared in Melbourne Catholic.