Friday, June 08, 2007

Benedict XIV

Since coming across Benedict XIV while studying for a canon law licence, I always thought he sounded like a pope I`d like to know more about. I learnt that he had an interest in the liturgy and had sought to preserve the purity of the oriental rites in communion with Rome. He had also introduced the figure of the Defender of the Bond in marriage cases to make sure the bond itself got a fair hearing. However it was only a couple of years ago while looking through second hand bookshops in York that I found Haynes` `Philosopher king: The humanist pope Benedict XIV` It took me a while to get round to reading it but I did so earlier this year. There was a lot to enjoy in the book. It was his fair-minded and moderate approach that I found appealing. My heart sank somewhat on finding four chapters (out of twelve) dedicated to his famous work on beatification and canonization which I thought would be rather dry but they were anything but as they analysed the criteria for determining when a miracle is really a miracle and how to judge whether an incident is truly supernatural. Haynes book had only a little to say about Benedict`s liturgical interests however.

Some incidents give a flavour of the man. The conclave which elected him in 1740 lasted six months. Lambertini was put forward as a compromise candidate and addressed the conclave saying : "If you wish to elect a saint choose Gotti; a statesman, Aldobrandini; an honest man, elect me". ( Haynes translates what she says is a Bologonese term as `booby` whereas `honest man` is the Catholic encyclopedia`s version). He was renowned for his witty conversation but also could shock visitors by his use of `uncardinalish expletives` which he eventually tried to restrain. It was interesting to see his assessment of Henry Stuart, the Cardinal brother of Bonny Prince Charlie. Haynes records he said `if all the Stuarts were as boring as Cardinal York he did not wonder that the English had driven them out`. As for the Polish bishops he said they were `inclined to drink much and think little`.

He was praised by Horace Walpole and Voltaire. Voltaire on one occasion penned the following lines:

`Lambertinus hic est Romae decus et pater orbis
Qui mundum scriptis docuit, virtutibus ornat`

(Here is Lambertini, the glory of Rome and the father of the earth, who teaches the world by his writings and adorns it with his virtues)

When this was presented to the Pope someone present complained that hic did not scan as it should always be a long syllable. The Pope replied that although he had not read Vergil for fifty years he could remember one line in which the poet scanned it as long and another where it was short!

In response to Walpole`s praise he remarked that he was `like the statues on the facade of St Peter`s which appear better when seen from a distance.`

I`m sure there are many reasons why Cardinal Ratzinger took the name Benedict. I wonder if the character of Benedict XIV, with his love of learning and self-effacing nature, was one of them.

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