Opening November 14, 2008, at the Pontifical Lateran University, on the occasion of the Centenary of the end of World War I, was the International Convention of Studies on the theme “The Holy See and Catholics in the Post-War World (1918-1922).” The Convention, organized by the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences, ran through November 16. Among the participants are scholars from Universities of Italy, France, Belgium, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia, Poland, and Latin America.
Intervening at the opening of the event was the Secretary of State, H.E. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, on the theme: “The Challenges of Vatican Diplomacy after World War I.”
Here is a ZENIT translation of the text.
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Intervention of the Cardinal Secretary of State
The Challenges of Vatican Diplomacy after World War I
The catastrophe of Austria is at the same time terrible and wonderful. It’s historical mission was finished. Now a new era begins in the East. Without the Turkish empire, without the Austrian empire, without Czarism, the situation takes on an altogether new, mysterious turn, which attracts the attention of the historian and the philosopher . . . However, the world that is looming, though different, is no less interesting . . .  The field is certainly immense and the future offers so many possibilities. Words full of emotion that the young papal diplomat Ermenegildo Pellegrinetti — later Apostolic Nuncio in Belgrade and Cardinal, confided to his Diary in the autumn of 1918, while rendering service next to the Apostolic Visitor in Poland Achille Ratti — the future Pius XI, making visible the atmosphere permeated with apprehensions and expectations that reigned in Benedictine diplomacy, when the first world conflict was nearing its end. The clear awareness was felt of witnessing upheavals of unheard of profundity, but also the Catholic optimism ready to open to new ways, which would have perhaps put in movement the certainties of yesterday and entailed challenges for the morrow, but also disclosed new prospects for the mission of the Church.
Pope Benedict XV, a Pontiff of extraordinary intellectual and human gifts, wrongly remaining for decades in the shadow of his more noted Successors and only in the last years duly rediscovered by historians, and his diplomats were well aware that the “Great War,” the first of worldwide dimensions and total character, had marked for Europe and for the world a decisive turning point, rather, the end of an historical era. It changed the entire political geography and the balance of power in Europe and in the world; it caused the collapse and the radical re-shaping of four great empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman, whose place was taken over by a dozen new States, and catalysed the slow political, economic and social decline of the great European powers, which before the bellicose conflict found themselves at the height of their power and influence and after it had to cede their pre-eminence to two great extra-European powers (or with the territory and the radius of interests that went beyond European borders): the United States and Russia/the Soviet Union. What happened was precisely what Benedict XV had foreseen from the beginning of the War and of his pontificate: the War became “Europe’s suicide.”
The new European order that took over the place of the collapse of the old order offered not a few causes for concern. It issued from a Peace Conference, of which the Holy See was excluded and that, marked by the lack of that Christian spirit of charity and reconciliation, which is the fundamental presupposition of an equitable and durable peace, risked being reduced, as the Pope’s journal noted, to a clash of contrasting interests and of rival hegemonies.” In he majority of European States, the political power found itself again in the hands of political and ideological forces of a Liberal-Socialist and secular stamp that — although diverse among them — seemed to share the tacit anti-Catholic impetus and the effort to expel God and His Church from the public arena and from the lives of men. Behind the laicism, which Pius XI called “the plague of our era,” taking advantage of the material and political ruins and the moral devastations caused by the War, the extreme Bolshevik left was already pressing, which in the bloody Russian Revolution and Civil War succeeded in establishing the violently anti-Christian Communist political system and tending to light, as the tragic experiments of the Republics’ Councils demonstrated, the flames of the worldwide revolution. Europe was torn by profound political and ideological counter-positions and national egoisms, tormented by a bitter social question marked by the painful disorientation of the masses. Under the impression of the horrendous experience of the trenches, with the death and humiliation of man omnipresent, of nascent mass propaganda, of the growing social and intellectual dependence of large sectors of the populations on political and ideological elites and the fading of the natural human communities, first of all of the family, they lost ever more rapidly the bonds with the Church, with religion and with God.
In the restless Old Continent, they came to silence the arms, but true peace didn’t come, the tranquillitas ordinis. The Pope’s response to this challenge was not the nostalgic regret of past times, of which he well knew the hidden insufficiencies behind the lucid facade of the “Golden Era” of the old regime, among which were unresolved national questions, social and colonial oppressions and blind faith in material and technical progress, and much less so the appeal to a return to models of monarchic and pre-middle class States and the old concert of powers based on the precarious balance of power, but a vision of international reordering pivoted on the active presence of Christian principles in public life, on sincere love and respect for man and his needs, be it as individual be it as member of a people, and on the international organization of peoples, founded on equity, justice and brotherhood, to be able to resolve frictions in a peaceful way. Therefore, the Church, faithful to her supernatural priorities, did not cherish any preference for particular forms of State or civil institutions, but — as the social encyclicals of Leo XIII had masterfully demonstrated — singled out the only criterion of assessment in dealing with political power in the libertas Ecclesiae and in respect for the dignity of the human person and for the rights of the Christian conscience: “The Church, perfect society, whose sole end is the sanctification of men of all times and all countries,” wrote the Pope to the Cardinal Secretary of State on November 8, 1918, “as she adapts to the different forms of Government, thus accepts without any difficulty the legitimate territorial and political variations of peoples.”
Benedict XV and his Curia realized that in the “era of the masses” that were erupting on the historical proscenium, it would no longer be monarchs and Chancelleries, but the people, the nations, the great social communities that would become the protagonists of history, and that, thrones and apostolic reigns having fallen, in conditions of parliamentary regimes and of the mass society, the Church would find support and the most effective defender in her mobilized Catholic masses. Pope Benedict XV, who during the whole conflict reminded the belligerents with perseverance of the “just and legitimate aspirations of peoples” as the sine qua non condition of a just and lasting peace, also recognized the moral and political value of the Nation as community of Natural Law, rooted in particular socio-religious conditions and stabilizing foundation of the States and he included respect for it in the ambit of the Fourth Commandment, provided that it be inserted in the Christian dialectic of the whole and of the particular and did not degenerate into a blind attitude geared to exalting the Nation (or the State) as supreme value, and ignoring the fundamental unity of the human race and Christian universalism, becoming in this way a danger for peace and for the common good..
Benedict XV, an acute realist and sincere friend of man in all his situations, understood well that a new world with new characteristics and demands was about to be born, and he took up its cry: the strong call to freedom and to the fundamental rights of millions of men in uniform returning from the trenches, of millions of women forced to assume the obligations of the absent men, of the prisoners of war, of the hungry, of the widows and orphans, of persecuted Russian Christians, of the Romanovs in captivity and exile, of the children of Francis Ferdinand d’Este who were about to lose their last material property, in sum, of all the suffering men, be they aristocrats with historical surnames or the least among the poor who were expecting words of consolation and encouragement and support or claiming their rights in a new political context.
The Pontiff didn’t intend to exclude himself or exclude the Church from this new world, despite its being presented as lay or secular and to have the Church shut in “sacristies” or in the intimacy of consciences, but — in consonance with the old Augustinian thought that the enjoyment of earthly peace facilitated to the Civitas Dei, its concrete realization in human society, he wanted to place her in this world as a moral instance present in the public sphere and incisive in international life, not as an interested party among interested parties, but as Mother and Teacher “ not exceeded, not backward, not unreasonable but alive, beneficial and friend.”
The active work of mediation and peace carried out by papal diplomacy during and after the conflict, and the extremely wide humanitarian action continued also after the armistice in such a generous way as to empty the papal coffers and constrain Cardinals to assume credit to be able to bury fittingly the deceased great Ligurian Pontiff, were expressions of the new international role of the Papacy as moral authority, pacifier and advocate not only with its believers but with men in general, all natural human values. It was a universal mission, of which Giovanni Battista Montini, future Paul VI said, in the historic address pronounced at the Campidoglio on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, that the Papacy, humiliated by the loss of temporal power, “took up with unheard of vigour its functions of Teacher of life and witness of the Gospel, so as to reach such height, in the spiritual government of the Church and in the moral radiation on the world, as never before.”
The new order taking shape on the horizon could become “promise and guaranty of well understood and honest freedom, or instrument of the worst of tyrannies depending on whether they were informed by frankly Christian principles or those of an unbelieving and atheist secularism,” warned L’Osservatore Romano at the dawn of the first post-war year. It was in fact this junction in regard to which the Pontiff saw a fundamental task of his action, be it religious-pastoral be it political-diplomatic, which he hastened to carry out, assisted by a rather small but very faithful array of diplomats, at that time still all Italian, formed in the old diplomatic world of chancelleries, living rooms and learned language, and constrained from one day to another to adapt themselves to new environments, languages and interlocutors.
The first fundamental stage on this path was peace. It was natural that papal diplomacy, which dedicated so much effort during the War to the restoration of peace, should also seek, after the end of hostilities, the real consolidation of peace and its fundamental assumption: the relaxation of spirits. It is well known that the peace negotiations were carried out without the participation of the Holy See, excluded by article 15 of the London Pact, but also by the intervention of the secular forces determined to oppose a religious-ecclesiastical interference in international organizations. Despite this, Benedict XV did not give up the only cards he had left to intervene: the pastoral word in public pronouncements, the mobilization of Catholic public opinion and the presence, at least officious, of his diplomatic representatives.
Even before the Peace Conference gathered, in the brief encyclical Quod Iamdiu of December 1, 1918, Benedict XV, concerned about the spirit of imposition and of rancour that transpired in the preparations for the Paris gathering, warned that the task of the future Congress would be that of combining a just and lasting peace, and he invited Bishops to have <the faithful> pray so that “that great gift of God, which is true peace, founded on Christian principles, would be concretized. At the same time, the Pontiff sent the head of his diplomacy the clever Extraordinary Secretary of Ecclesiastical Affairs Bonaventura Cerretti, to France, Belgium, the United States and England to promote, on behalf of the national episcopate and of Catholic public opinion, an action on the respective governments in the sense desired by the Holy See. When the Peace Conference gathered in Paris, Cerretti, although excluded from the negotiations themselves, was present in the French capital for two months and he succeeded in mitigating the fate of holy places and of the German Catholic missions in the colonies, of which defeated Germany was deprived, and also to start discreet contacts with the Italian interlocutors to disentangle slowly the unresolved Roman question.
What was the concrete content of the papal vision of a new European systematization, for which the tireless Cerretti sought to sensitize Catholic opinion in the great powers was already very recognizable by Benedict XV’s famous Peace Note of August 1, 1917: the respect of justice and of equity in relations between States and peoples, renunciation of reciprocal compensations, respect of the natural principle of nationality and of the legitimate aspirations of peoples, just access to material goods and to ways of communication for all, the reduction of armaments <and> arbitrage as peaceful instrument for the resolution of conflicts. Significantly, the Pontiff preferred to speak of equity as well as of justice, namely of justice animated by Christian charity, appealing to the fundamental evangelical precept of love of neighbour and of forgiveness of offenses, but also to the politicaabout the impossibility of carrying out maximalist requests that were not able to ensure human coexistence and threatened to arouse in the adversary, once recovered, ruinous reactions for peace and for the winners of yesterday themselves. This warning to the victors not to abuse their strength of the moment, also pointed out the limits in which the Holy See would approve the peace treaties: they were welcomed because they sanctioned the cessation of hostilities and opened the possibility of renewed collaboration between peoples, but accepted with perplexity and criticism, when peace remained on paper rather than in men’s hearts and the demands of Christian charity weren’t satisfied. A similar dualism also countersigned the assessment of the newborn Society of Nations. Its universal character and its purpose to protect the peace resembled too much the proposals of Benedict XV himself (disarmament, collective security, obligatory arbitrage) not to attract his benevolence, as well as its liberal-secular character rooted in the ideology of secular humanitarianism, the influences of international Free Masonry suffered and the exclusion of the Pontiff from this international organ, could not, in any case, but raise reservations and distances to impeding papal diplomacy from supporting individual initiatives geared to a good end.
One of the greatest challenges for post-War papal diplomacy was the collapse of the centuries-old Habsburg monarchy. Although the Holy See had no illusions about the internal state of the Danubian monarchy, permeated by the Josephinian heritage and the jurisdictional tradition “falsely held by some as bulwark of the Catholic Church,” as the founder of the Italian Popular Party Luigi Sturzo wrote,by the progressive secularization and by national and ideological divisions the decay of the last great power that acknowledged itself Catholic, could not but cause concern to the Holy See. This notwithstanding very few days after the armistice of Villa Giusti, the Pontiff appointed as head of his Apostolic Nunciature in Vienna, Monsignor Teodoro Valfre di Bonzo, <asking him> to “put himself in friendly relations with the different nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian State, which recently constituted themselves as independent States.”
To the most noble representation of the Pope at the court of the Habsburgs — changed from one day to another into an improvised Central European center of action –, corresponded the central task to procure for the Holy See the information so painfully lacking and to build new channels for effective communication and diplomatic action, in order to safeguard the interests of the Church and, through rapid action in crucial times, ensure her the due place in the new State structures.
The profile of the new world that opened before the Nuncio’s eyes implied not a few challenges: the sad consequences of Austro-Hungarian jurisdictionalism, which had bound the particular Churches to the State and to the dominant establishment, exposing the Church, after the fall of the old dominating <establishments> to bitter criticisms and vexatious measures, the political claims of new governments desirous of not losing the rights in ecclesiastical matters exercised by the political power under the Austro-Hungarian regalism, loss of ecclesiastical properties through confiscation or agrarian reforms, requests of separation between Church and State, territories of the dioceses split by new political borders. More still: the emotional impetus, the political and spiritual ferment, the waves of nationalisms did not cease, not even in front of the doors of the Church, and flowed in different reformist currents felt particularly in the Bohemian countries, where more than one million people left the Catholic Church and a national Church was born regarded as the religious complement of the political emancipation of the Nation.
Benedict XV and his diplomats were thus placed before the necessity to develop strategies to defend Catholics from the secular impact, to ensure to the Catholic Church a due place in the new State structures, emancipate her from the charges of jurisdictionalism, be they old or new, which would re-establish within the Church the perfect unity of doctrine and organization, which had suffered due to preceding developments, and start her on the path of the re-conquest of her lost social place. Concretely, the ecclesiastical territorial and jurisdictional order had to be re-established in harmony with the new State reality and with the new pastoral needs, appoint new Bishops of the nationality of their faithful, recover the freedom of episcopal appointments and close once and for all the sad practices of different royal or State patronages, increase the intellectual and moral level of the clergy through the pastoral action of new Bishops, the reform of education and the formation of the clergy in a truly Catholic spirit. It was an intricate situation and a difficult challenge that papal diplomacy had to address with scarce knowledge and scarce means, but with courage and without any prejudice, succeeding soon in consolidating the situation, thanks also to the work carried out by the new Apostolic diplomats, extraordinary personalities, almost all of whom became Cardinals and even Pontiffs. Achille Ratti and Lorenzo Lauri in Poland, Clemente Micara and Francesco Marmaggi in Czechoslovakia, Lorenzo Schioppa and Cesare Orsenigo in Hungary, Ermenegildo Pellegrietti in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians (later Yugoslavia), Francesco Marmaggi and Angelo Maria Dolci in Rumania, and so many others.
No less dramatic were the challenges brought by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which swept away the Zarist government with its harrassing hostility in relations with the Catholic Church, substituting, after a brief phase of optimistic expectations in the Apostolic Palace an oppressive regime and enemy of the Divine and Natural Law never known before. When the Soviet regime revealed itself surprisingly lasting and the situation of Catholics in its borders ever more dramatic, and when even the Soviet regime, moved by the need for consolidation, discovered the political advantages of the diplomatic recognition of the Pope, Vatican diplomacy did not even have the fear of entering into contact with the Bolshevik revolutionaries in tails, and begin diplomatic negotiations to ensure the survival of Catholicism in the Soviet Union. The negotiations failed, but the Holy See at least succeeded in sending to the Soviet Union an imposing charitable mission, contributing in this way to save thousand of human lives. In any case, Christianity in Russia and in the Soviet Union remained one of the major concerns of all the Pontiffs of the troubled 20th century.
Notwithstanding all the difficulties and the continuation of the situation of diplomatic inferiority linked to the unresolved Roman Question, the War and the immediate post-War developments, the strict impartiality, the vast mediation actions of pacification and assistance, and the generous love for man and for all peoples, increased the respect and prestige which the Papacy and its diplomacy enjoyed and reinforced its positions on the international checkerboard. Said in simple arithmetic terms, whereas at the beginning of the pontificate, in September 1914, the Holy See had relations with only 17 States, before the death of Pope Della Chiesa, in January 1922 the number of diplomatic partners rose to 27, among which were not only the new States, which felt the need of the support of the oldest sovereign and the moral authority of the Pope, but also of the powers detached before the War from relations with the Pope, such as France and Great Britain, or the Weimar Republic, which abandoned the old system in which the States of Prussia and Bavaria maintained their representatives at Rome and hosted Nuncios on their territory, and linked diplomatic relations at the central level. It became evident again that, despite all the clouds on the horizon, the Lord did not cease to assist His Church. When the Apostolic Nuncio in Vienna, Valfre di Bonzo, scared by the events of the autumn of 1918, wrote Pope Benedict XV, his friend from his youth, a letter full of anxiety, the Pontiff, full of optimism nourished by faith, answered him: “ . . . men say that everything depends on the events, I say that we are in God’s hands and wouldn’t you want to add that ‘we are in good hands’?” 
 Diaries of Cardinal Ermenegildo Pellegrinetti 1916-1922, edited by Terzo Natalini, Vatican City: Vatican Archive, 1994, p. 182.
 Ibid., p. 159.
 Cf. Several public pronouncements of Benedict XV as, for example, the Pastoral Letter to Cardinal Pompilj of March 4, 1916; Letter to Cardinal Gasparri of May 5, 1917; Note to the Belligerent Powers of August 1, 1917.
 L’Osservatore Romano, June 25, 1919.
 Cf. Especially the Encyclical Quas Primas of 1925, in Enchiridion of the Encyclicals, Vol. 5, Pius XI (1922-1939), Bologna, 1995, pp. 158-193.
 Benedict XV to Cardinal Secretary of State Gasparri in the Apostolic Letter After the Last of November 8, 1918, in La Civilta Cattolica, 1918, vol. IV, p. 343; AAS, Vol. 10, 1918, p. 579.
 For the quotation Cf. Giorgio Rumi, Introduction, in Benedict XV and Peace — 1918, edited by Giorgio Rumi, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1990, p. 8.
 Giovanni Battista Montini, Discorsi e Scritti Milanesi (1954-1963), III (1961-1963), Brescia, Paul VI Institute, 1997, pp. 5348-5361.
 L’Osservatore Romano, January 1, 1919.
 For the Holy See’s attitude in dealings with the Society of Nations Cf. S.RR.SS, AA.EE.SS, Ecclesiastical States, pos. 506 P.O., fasc. 515, reports of the Apostolic Nuncio in Berne Di Maria and of the Counselor of the Laghi Nunciature to the Secretariat of State, 1934-1935.
 Luigi Sturzo, Political Discourses, Rome, Luigi Sturzo Institute, 1951, p. 391.
 After the Last, Apostolic Letter of Benedict XV to the Cardinal Secretary of State, in La Civilta Cattolica, 1918.
 Cf. Emilia Hrabovec, Der Heilige Stuhl und die Slowakei 1918-1922 im Kontext internationaler Beziehungen, Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, 2002, pp. 19-32, 67-78.
 Cf. Gianpaolo Riomanato, “Achille Ratti in Plonia in the context of the Catholic renewaal after World War I,: in Nuncio in a Frontier Land. Achille Ratti , then Pius XI in Poland (1918-1921), edited by Quirino Alessandro Bortolato and Miroslaw Lenart, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2017, p. 24. Emilia Hrabovec, “Pius XI and the Pastoral Consequences of the Peace Treaties in Central-Eastern Europe: The Case of Czechoslovakia and Hungary,” in The Ecclesial Solicitude of Pius XI. In the light of the New Archivist Sources, edited by Cosimo Semeraro. Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2010, pp. 363-395.
 Giorgio Petracchi, “The Papal Mission of Aid to Russia (1921-1923)” in: The Holy See and Russia from Leo XII to Pius XI. Minutes of the Symposium organized by the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences and the Institute of Universal History of the Academy of Sciences of Moscow. Moscow, June 23-25, 1998, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002, pp. 122-180.
 Giacomo Della Chiesa, Letter to Nuncio Teodoro Valfre di Bonzo, edited with an Introduction by Giorgio Rumi, MIlan, NED, 1992, p.13
Original text: Italian] [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]