Benedict XIII (#246)
by Anura Guruge
On Friday, February 24, 2012, in the Hall of Conciliation of the Lateran Palace (Rome), Cardinal Agostino Vallini (#9 papabile in my 2009 list, but now no longer favored), Vicar General of Rome, hosted a formal ceremony to reopen the cause of beatification and canonization of Pope Benedict XIII (#246) [May 1724 to Feb. 1730]. (Maybe the choice of venue was no coincidence. This really does seem to be an act of conciliation.)
This seemed incongruous to say the least. He wasn’t a great pope. Many probably know the antipope of that name better than the pope. That they have reopened his cause is puzzling.
The first attempt to beatify him was opened in 1755, in northwestern Italy (in Tortona), 25-years after his death. That was a lead balloon! Then, in 1931, again in Tortona, they reopened the cause. Nine years later they closed it. Now it is being reopened again? Why?
He, born Pietro Francesco Orsini, in 1650, is from the great Orsinis of Rome — that also gave us Celestine III (#176) and Nicholas III (#189), but even more significantly Matteo Orsini, the enforcer of the very first bona fide conclave in 1241. He became a Dominican as a youth and thanks to his family ties became a cardinal priest (supposedly against his will) at the age of 23. Though he continued as a friar he would be appointed a bishop and eventually become the Archbishop of Benevento (Italy).
He was elected pope, as a compromise candidate following a 9-week conclave, at the age of 74. He was reluctant to become pope but accepted at the urging of the head of his order.
Upon becoming Bishop of Rome he did not relinquish Benevento. Holding two bishoprics was a practice started by German popes in the early 11th century.
Benedict XIII was the last pope to retain his prior bishopric upon becoming pope. Maybe that is why they want to make him a Saint?
To be fair he was pious pope. He was frugal, ascetic, devout but extremely fond of liturgical celebrations. This desire to celebrate led to him canonizing 10 saints and consecrating close to 140 bishops across Europe and the ‘New World’ — though he was only pope for five years and eight months. Consequently, many of today’s apostolic succession lineage chains end up going through one of these Benedict XIII bishops. He (like John Paul II (#265)) liked to exercise and would ride out of Rome, in disguise, so that he could partake in physical activity in the countryside. All of that is good.
One of those that he canonized was Gregory ‘Hildebrand’ VII (#158) — who had proclaimed that all popes are automatically Saints given their Peterine succession. [There is lot to be said for this line of thought and I personally think that Benedict XVI (#266) should edict it so as to eliminate this somewhat unsavory distinction among popes -- and even this post wondering why Benedict XIII is more special than say Benedict XV (#259).] Gregory was quite a pope, and Hildebrand was quite the power behind the throne. But, alas, Gregory’s legacy involves his bitter, non-stop, acrimonious battle with the then Emperor Henry IV which led to much abuse of Rome. The Romans were not pleased. Gregory’s canonization, which lauded his battles with the emperor, was not popular.
He tried, though not successfully, to curb the indulgent lifestyles of his cardinals and Italian clerics. He forbid cardinals and clerics from wearing wigs. OK, that is probably worthy of a beatification. He also abolished the Roman lottery. That probably wasn’t good because his papacy bankrupted the papal finances!
In 1624 Urban VIII (#236), with a bull, banned the use of tobacco in holy places — the punishment being automatic excommunication. Benedict XIII invalidated that ban. Is that the real cause?
Benedict, atypical, of the time shunned nepotism. He didn’t even create a ‘nephew’ as the cardinal nephew though he was asked and expected to do so. Instead, his weakness, a fatal one at that, was for his old staff from his bishopric in Benevento. He brought his old staff over to Rome to help him be pope. Two in particular, both created cardinals, Paolucci and Coscia proved to be class reprobates — particularly the later who embezzled from the papal treasury!
So, some of the contemporary commentary of Benedict’s prowess as a pope included: “He did not have any idea about how to rule” and “All the money of Rome go to Benevento“.
Upon his death this little ditty came to be:
“This tomb encloses the bones of a little friar:
more than a saint’s lover a protector of brigands”
He was, as the above indicates, extremely unpopular by the time he died, particularly in Rome.
So, this begs the question, why is his cause being reopened. Aren’t there more worthy causes around?