The Servant of God Pope Benedict XIII, born Pierfrancisco Orsini, took the name of Friar Vincenzo Maria when he became a Dominican. (Before that, he was the 12th Duke of Gravina, along with other titles.) He was made a cardinal by Pope Clement X in 1672 — against his will, people said. The pope deployed him as a bishop first in Manfredonia, then Cesena, and then Benevento. Despite his reluctance, he was a hardworking bishop with a hands-on approach to correcting things, and of course he was a good preacher who was interested in making sure everybody got a good education. After two years in Benevento, the earthquake of June 5, 1688 hit. He attributed his escape from certain death to the prayers of St. Philip Neri.
Benevento is earthquake-prone, so he ended up rebuilding the town twice during his service. Meanwhile, he participated without incident in the papal conclaves that elected Popes Innocent XI, Alexander VIII, Innocent XII, Clement XI, and Innocent XIII.
But in the conclave of 1724, we are told by the Chevalier Artaud de Montor, things were a little bit different. The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the bishop was worried because after two months, no particular candidate had any particular majority. He wanted to get on back to Benevento with the Church on track. So on May 25, he quietly started a novena to St. Philip Neri, asking that the election not be delayed much longer.
Be careful what you pray for.
Suddenly the good bishop found himself in the uncomfortable position of a papabile; and worse, he got the feeling that he was the one who was going to win! He was known to be a great pastor as well as a man of holy and austere life who took his religious vows seriously, and that sounded good. More and more cardinals kept voting for him, while he got more and more distressed. Finally, on the last ballot on May 29, we are told that the voting was unanimous — except for the vote of the bishop himself. Everybody congratulated him.
He refused the papacy.
A staredown resulted. Cardinals kept trying to persuade him. He kept refusing. They kept refusing to reconsider. Some say this lasted more than a day, while others that it was only three hours.
Finally, somebody sent for tbe head of the Dominican Order (since technically the conclave was over and the doors could be unlocked). The cardinals asked him to order his friar to become pope!
The guy agreed to speak to his friar. We don’t know if he would have ordered him. As soon as they started talking, the bishop apparently revealed that he had made a secret vow not to accept any kind of honors at the conclave, either as the pope or a member of his court. Since he was a priest as well as a friar, the head Dominican had the authority to dissolve the vow, which he promptly did. The unhappy new pope reluctantly accepted his election.
As was then the custom, the new Pope was dressed in his new robes and the papal triple tiara. He was then placed on a sedan chair (the sedia gestatoria) and carried outside through the Square and over to St. Peter’s, so that the people could see him. At the door of St. Peter’s, the new pope startled everyone by ordering the chair to be lowered. He got out and pressed himself to the earth, kissing the threshold of the doors. He spent a long enough time on the ground that many people in the crowd thought he had collapsed and died. The cardinals, who could see what was going on, were confused about whether they should also prostrate themselves, kneel, bow, or just keep standing there. Finally, everyone was released from suspense when the new pope got up and walked inside on foot, and then went over to the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
The papal masters of ceremony were worried and upset by all this. But the contemporary joke was that there was no reason to sing the traditional antiphon “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus” (“Behold the great priest”), because nobody would be able to “behold” him through the crowd!
Later that day, when the Pope was taken back into the papal palace, he initially refused to sleep in the papal bed (until reason prevailed or it got to be silly). The next day, he sent for his Dominican convent bed with its normal sheets and bedclothes, all either wool or of rough-textured cloth. He slept on that for the rest of his papacy. He also delayed his papal installation Mass for the next three days, spending it all in prayer. The Mass was finally held on June 4th.
After that, things went pretty normally until June 11, when the pope interrupted his visit to Holy Ghost Hospital to give last rites to a dying nun.
On June 26th, he announced a Jubilee Year or Holy Year to ask God’s favor.
In August on St. Dominic’s Day, he went back to his old convent and dined in the normal refectory dining room. So as to show no favor, he then proceeded to do the same thing on St. Francis’ Day in October. In later years, he often visited his old convent’s refectory, and kissed the hand of whoever was running the Dominican Order at the time.
Pope Benedict XIII was also known for canonizing many saints. He did equipollent canonizations of Pope St. Gregory VII and St. Wenceslas.
In 1727, as part of his administration of the Papal States, he went out by sea to the very rural town of Terracina to see what was going on with the Pontine Marshes (which badly needed draining). Two ships of the Barbary Pirates found out about this and attempted to capture him, landing raiders at San Felice Circeo. (Mind you, the Barbary States had just concluded a treaty with the Papal States, agreeing not to attack them. So yeah, that worked out.)
Luckily for the Pope, the hurried imprudence that led him to go out to the marshes without enough guard also hurried him back home again. The raiders found that they were too late. (But we are told that many old people and children were kidnapped and enslaved by the disappointed Muslim raiders.) On later papal trips by sea, the pope took a Papal States war galley.
Pope Benedict XIII was still very fond of his old diocese of Benevento, and he visited the city several times during his papacy. He was also criticized for placing too much confidence in men from Benevento whom he knew, because he picked so many of them to be his ministers and bureaucrats, while overlooking many able Romans. The worst example was Cardinal Nicolo Coscia, formerly his coadjutor bishop at Benevento. He was a total crook, and apparently Pope Benedict XIII was the only one who didn’t realize it. (As soon as the pope died, Coscia was arrested, tried, and sent to prison for ten years for all his stealing.)
On the other hand, Pope Benedict XIII deliberately didn’t give special favors to his own Orsini family. (He wasn’t even the first pope from his noble family. The others were Celestine III, best known for excommunicating the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI for imprisoning Richard the Lionheart; and Nicholas III, whose dad had been a personal friend of St. Francis of Assisi.)
So far, you probably are thinking that this guy was a lot like our current Pope Francis.
But he also did a lot of stuff that was prudent administration. He ordered that cardinals who weren’t from wealthy backgrounds should be given a geneous stipend, sufficient for doing their jobs, paying their staff, and giving out alms. He also got out the books of ceremonials for bishops and had all the iffy passages corrected in a new edition, according to how he had seen bishops do it correctly over his long years of pre-papal epicopizing. He replaced a confraternity for laypeople that had been suppressed with another confraternity of the same name, run along exactly the same lines, but under Franciscan supervision.
With the help of a personal friendship which he had formed with the dissident Cardinal Noailles of France during the long two months of papal conclave, he convinced Noailles to publicly agree with the old bull Unigenitus before the cardinal died. (Unigenitus is a condemnation list of 101 Jansenist statements, said in a popular book by a guy named Quesnel. His argument was that God was perfectly okay with running over people’s free will. The popes consistently said this was nonsense.)
He also acted as a friend of theater. There was a plague in Pamplona, Navarre. The desperate people of the city assembled in the public square and collectively vowed several things if God would spare their lives, among which was that no comedy would ever be played in Pamplona. They kept the vow and closed down the theater. The problem was that the local orphanage for illegitimate kids was supported by theater revenues. Should the citizenry’s vow be dissolved? Or were comedy plays something evil that should not be allowed in a Catholic city, as some insisted? Pope Benedict XIII dissolved the vow. He argued that it was the King of Navarre’s job and the theater’s job to make sure that the plays were good ones, and that the citizens should give the orphanage a named amount of money to replace the lost revenues.
He also built the Spanish Steps.
He died on February 21, 1730. An autopsy showed that his heart was abnormally large, much like that of St. Philip Neri. His funeral Mass was at St. Peter’s, but he was interred in the Chapel of St. Dominic at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, right next to the Dominican convent he loved. Here’s his tomb.
People have started causes for his sainthood several times, including soon after his death; but it always stalled. The process was started again in 2004 and the diocesan bit was officially reopened on February 24, 2012, under Pope Benedict XVI. The dioceses sponsoring it are: Altamura-Gravina-Acquaviva delle Fonti, Manfredonia-Vieste-San Giovanni Rotondo, Cesena- Sarsina and Tortona.
Anyone who has new information or documents relating to his life, whether positive or negative, is requested to send authenticated photocopies of them to the Diocesan Tribunal of the Vicariate of Rome.
There doesn’t seem to be any website for his cause. However, back in Gravina, the Centro Studi Benedetto XIII seems to be keeping his fame alive. (Website in Italian.)