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Toward the conclave #5: a brief history of conclaves April 09, 2005

The origin of the term "conclave," referring to a papal election, can be traced back to marathon meeting of the College of Cardinals that began in 1268. Gathering in Viterbo, north of Rome, in November of that year, the cardinals met inconclusively for month after month. Eventually the people of Viterbo, frustrated by their prelates' indecisiveness, locked the cardinals into the episcopal palace. When they still saw no results, they reduced the prelates to a bare diet of bread and water. Finally, in September 1271, Pope Gregory X was elected.

Learning from that miserable experience, Pope Gregory X institutionalized the conclave (the word comes from the Latin cum- clave, "with a key") in 1274. He decreed that henceforth papal elections would take place at a strictly closed location, with the cardinals living under modest conditions so that they would not be tempted to prolong their stay.

Other Stories in this Series
This is the 5th in a series of articles looking forward to the conclave that will choose the 265th Roman Pontiff. Readers might also be interested in:

· Toward the conclave #1: the office of camerlengo
· Toward the conclave #2: the cardinals' daily congregations
· Toward the conclave #3: announcing the new Pope
· Toward the conclave #4: how long will the conclave last?

The first conclave to be held at the Vatican was in 1303, for the election that produced Pope Benedict XI. After his election, the years of the Avignon papacy intervened, and the next conclave in Rome did not occur until 1378, with the election of Pope Urban VI. Another gap followed, and it was not until the election of Pope Callistus III, in 1455, that the conclaves moved back to Rome permanently.

The sequence of Roman elections was broken once, in 1800, when Pope Pius VII was elected at a conclave in Venice. But the cardinals returned to the Eternal City, to deliberate at the Quirinal Palace, for the next four conclaves. In 1870 the Quirinal became the residence of the Italian king, as Rome was established as the capital of the new monarchy. So in 1878 the conclave that elected Pope Leo XIII met inside the Vatican. The 8 subsequent elections have also been held at the Vatican, and the conclave that opens on April 18 will be the 54th, altogether, held on Vatican grounds.

Although the history of papal elections is long and colorful, many of the factors that once influenced conclaves-- such as the open lobbying of European monarchs, or the gaps in communication that prevented some distant prelates from hearing about the Pope's death until after the election-- are no longer relevant considerations. Presumably the most recently conclaves offer the best guidance for anyone hoping to anticipate the shape of the conclave that opens next week. Consider, therefore, the eight conclaves of the 20th century.

  1. In August 1903, 62 cardinals voted to elect a successor to Pope Leo XIII. This was the last papal election to be influenced openly by a secular power. At the time, the monarchs of Austria, France, and Spain were still accorded the right to veto candidates, and the Austrian emperor used that power to bar the election of one very prominent candidate, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla. It is not clear that Cardinal Rampolla would have been the cardinals' choice, but in any event the conclave elected Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto as Pope Pius X. Among the first acts of his pontificate, Pius X abolished the royal privilege that may have been crucial to his election. He is the last Roman Pontiff to be canonized a saint.
  2. In 1914, as 57 cardinals met in the early days of World War I, Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa was not regarded as one of the leading papabili. But the Archbishop of Bologna was evidently recognized by his colleagues as a skillful diplomat, whose abilities might be useful in guiding the Church through a war that was creating deep and dangerous divisions in Europe. He emerged after 10 ballots as Pope Benedict XV.
  3. In 1922, the press in Rome regarded the conclave as a likely contest between two imposing figures within the Roman Curia: the "conservative" Cardinal Merry del Val and the "liberal" Cardinal Gasparri. The election was a lengthy one, suggesting that perhaps the backers of those two prelates were forced to find a consensus candidate. On the 14th ballot-- the most of the 20th century-- they elected Cardinal Achille Ratti of Milan to become Pope Pius XI. The American cardinals did not participate in the vote; they were not able to reach Rome in the 10 days before the start of the conclave.
  4. In 1939, Europe was once again facing the frightening prospect of war. This time there was a clear favorite entering the conclave: Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Secretary of State and former nuncio in Germany. Although it is a rule of thumb that favored candidates rarely win papal elections, on this occasion the rule was broken. In a brief conclave, after only 2 ballots, the 63 cardinal-electors chose Cardinal Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII.
  5. In 1958, the focus of media attention prior to the conclave was Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan. Although he was not yet a cardinal-- reportedly because he had fallen out of favor with Pope Pius XII-- the Italian prelate was enormously influential, and seemed the leading papabili. But this time the Vatican-watchers were surprised. The 51 cardinals chose instead the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli. After the election, analysts concluded that the cardinals had chosen a relatively old (77) candidate in hopes of a shorter, uneventful, "transitional" pontificate. If that was the case, the electors were caught by surprise when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council.
  6. In 1963, the conclave came during Vatican II, and journalists again looked toward Milan, where now-Cardinal Montini was regarded as a leader ideally suited to guide the Church through internal changes. This conclave was also marked by a large expansion of the College of Cardinals-- there were 80 electors-- and a sharp drop in the Italian influence. This time the prognosticators were right; Cardinal Montini became Pope Paul VI.
  7. By August 1978, the College of Cardinals had expanded further, and taken on a still more international cast. But Pope Paul VI had also imposed the rule that cardinals over 80 could not vote in a papal election, so "only" 111 prelates took part in the conclave that would choose the first Roman Pontiff of the post-conciliar Church. In an age characterized by international travel and instant communications, the election had now become the focal point of attention throughout the world. At the same time, Church leaders had become well acquainted with their counterparts in other countries, through the meetings of Vatican II and subsequent synods. Speculation about the conclave was intense, and media outlets all around the world carried their lists of papabile. The name most frequently mentioned was that of Genoa's Cardinal Giuseppe Siri. Instead the electors once again opted for the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani, who took the name John Paul I. The first conclave of 1978 was also memorable for the brutal heat that made life miserable for the electors in the crowded Sistine Chapel. The memory of those uncomfortable days would later prompt Pope John Paul II to authorize the construction of the St. Martha residence: a simple but comfortable dormitory-style residence on the Vatican grounds, where the cardinal-electors will now stay.
  8. The sudden death of Pope John Paul I--whose pontificate lasted only 33 days, one of the shortest terms in history-- probably caused cardinal-electors to look for a younger, more physically robust candidate, who could withstand the rigorous demands of the 20th-century papacy. Again Cardinal Siri was listed prominently among the papabile, along with Cardinal Benelli of Florence. Again the electors confounded predictions, choosing a relatively unknown prelate from Poland, who had impressed many colleagues with his contributions to Vatican II and his subsequent leadership of the Krakow archdiocese. And there was certainly no question about the physical health of the athletic Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. So, in an election that would change the face of the Church and the 20th century, the conclave chose the first non-Italian Pontiff in over 400 years: Pope John Paul II.