It was 1914, and the world was at war, the last time a pope took the name Benedict.
Pope Benedict XV, a mild-mannered diplomat who was elected as German troops invaded Russia, Belgium and France, tried to be a peacemaker with the world powers - and within a church that was roiled by dissent between traditionalists and liberals pushing for reforms.
Though he failed to broker an end to what he called "the suicide of Europe," Pope Benedict is widely credited with working toward international reconciliation after World War I. He also succeeded in smoothing over church divisions in the wake of his conservative predecessor, Pope Pius X, and became one of the first popes to promote a more ecumenical outlook and to reach out to Eastern Orthodox churches.
It is his example that some Vatican-watchers are looking at as they search for clues about the direction the new pontiff is likely to lead the world's Roman Catholics after the death of Pope John Paul II.
Popes often seek to pay tribute to predecessors whom they admire with their name choice. In choosing Benedict, which derives from the Latin for "blessing," the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger may have been inspired by the peacemaker, a move that some see as an attempt to overcome his reputation as a doctrinal hard-liner.
"We're all just guessing, but possibly, if this pope followed the tradition, he has reached back to the early 20th century, to a pope who worked for peace and protested against a lot of modern weapons he felt were killing innocent people," said the Rev. Joseph Rossi, chairman of Loyola College's theology department.
Rossi, who studied Pope Benedict XV, said the world lost out when the pope was not allowed to participate in the Versailles Conference. The pontiff, Rossi said, feared that treating Germany and Austria too harshly would have severe repercussions, something that proved true with the start of World War II.
"He was ecumenical before ecumenism became popular," Rossi said. "Benedict XV told the missionaries they should try to build up the native clergy in Africa and Asia. We see the results almost three-quarters of a century later because it is in these places that the church is booming."
Still, Benedict is one of the most popular papal names, following John, chosen by 23 popes, and tied with Gregory at 16. Other favorite papal names include Pius for "pious" and Clement for "mercy."
Among the 15 previous pontiffs named Benedict are several conservative scholars and a man who championed faith over rationalism during the 18th century era of Enlightenment.
Rossi said Pope Benedict XIV was "a key pope of the 18th century" who published a decree challenging the notion that rationalism should triumph over everything, even faith, that was being promoted by philosophers of the time. "He didn't reject reason but he rejected the radical rationalists," said Rossi.
In the early church, popes kept their given names. The tradition of choosing a papal name began in the sixth century, when a man named Mercury was elected pontiff. He figured he should not head the Roman Catholic church with a pagan name and changed it to John II in 533.
Little is known about the first pope named Benedict. He was a minor pope who presided over the church from June 575 to July 579. He spent much of his time trying to save the church in Rome, which was besieged by the Lombards, a powerful tribe that sought to gain control toward the end of the Roman Empire.
It is possible that he chose the name Benedict to honor the sixth-century saint, a monk who founded an order that is still popular today. St. Benedict is best known for promoting a monastic spirituality - and for surviving several attempts to poison him. Ecclesiastical art often depicts him handing a raven a loaf of poisoned bread, which according to legend, an envious local priest had given him in an attempt to kill him.
Other past popes who share the name include Benedict XIII, who continued to serve his local Italian diocese even while pope and bishop of Rome from 1724 to 1730.
Pope Benedict XII was a Frenchman who reigned from Avignon instead of Rome from 1334 to 1342. Benedict XI, who hailed from the Dominican religious order and served just one year from 1303 to 1304, is one of the popes who tried to bring together feuding church factions.
It was Pope Benedict XV, however, who is most credited with trying to heal church divisions - at a time of war. He took over as liberal reformers, called moderates, were trying to separate church and state - and after a left-wing French movement challenged traditional teachings and sought to break off relations with Rome.
An Italian named Giacomo Della Chiesa, he took the name Benedict and immediately made clear that he recognized the challenges before him. After delivering the traditional benediction to a kneeling crowd, Pope Benedict XV said "he could not imagine how his frail being was capable of enduring the enormous weight of responsibility thrown upon his shoulders," according to a Sept. 4, 1914, article in The Sun.
"The war," he said, "had armed faithful against faithful, priest against priest, while the bishops of each country offered prayers for the success of the army of his own nation," the newspaper stated. "But victory for one side meant slaughter to the other, the destruction of children equally dear to the heart of the Pontiff."
Sun researcher Paul McCardell and wire services contributed to this report.
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