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Papal conclave, October 1958
Coat of Arms during the Vacancy of the Holy See
Dates October 25–28, 1958
Location Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
Dean Eugène Tisserant
Vice Dean Clemente Micara
Camerlengo Benedetto Aloisi Masella
Protodeacon Nicola Canali
Ballots Pope elected after 11 ballots
Elected Pope Angelo Roncalli
(took name John XXIII)

The Papal conclave of 1958 occurred following the death of Pope Pius XII on October 9, 1958 in Castel Gandolfo, after a 19-year pontificate. The conclave to elect his successor commenced on October 25 and ended three days later, on October 28, after eleven ballots. The cardinal electors chose Angelo Roncalli, then Patriarch of Venice, as the new pope. He accepted the election and took the regnal name of John XXIII.

The conclave and its papabili

The conclave was held from October 25 to October 28, at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. In the absence of the popular Giovanni Battista Montini (who would become Pope Paul VI in 1963 but was not yet a cardinal at the time of this conclave), the papabili included the conservative Giuseppe Siri, Archbishop of Genoa, and the liberal Giacomo Lercaro, Archbishop of Bologna.

Because Pope Pius XII had held only two consistories (in 1946 and 1953) during his tenure, the College of Cardinals—whose maximum size, as set by Pope Sixtus V in the sixteenth century, was then seventy—was noticeably short of members. There were fifty-three cardinal electors, of whom twelve had been elevated by Pope Pius XI, but due to travel restrictions imposed by their Communist governments, József Mindszenty and Aloysius Stepinac were not able to travel to Rome. Hence, there were fifty-one electors who participated in the conclave, and thus a potential Pope needed only thirty-five votes.

Electing Roncalli

Pope Pius had to that point been the longest reigning pope in the twentieth century; Pope Leo XIII, though he died in the beginning of the century, had begun his reign and spent most of it in the nineteenth century. With the election of a 77-year-old cardinal, many churchmen interpreted the choice of Roncalli as picking a "pope of transition".[1] John XXIII himself said, when he took possession of the Lateran Basilica on November 23, 1958: "We do not have the right to see a long way ahead of us." [2]

Unlike 1939, when Eugenio Pacelli was the overwhelming favourite, or 1963, when Giovanni Battista Montini was favored, the 1958 conclave had several papabili but no favourite candidate. That may explain the unusual length of the conclave. Roncalli was among the persons mentioned by the media at the time. The mild-mannered former diplomat, of rural origins, took the name Pope John XXIII. He was like Pope Pius X before him: the second Patriarch of Venice to be elected Pontiff in the 20th century. (The third was Pope John Paul I in 1978.) Roncalli had been for many years Nuncio to Bulgaria, Turkey and France. Other candidates had been Valerio Valeri, Alfredo Ottaviani, Ernesto Ruffini, and the Armenian Patriarch of Cilicia, Grégoire-Pierre Agagianian. However, Agagianian's non-Italian heritage and young age (63) greatly hindered his chances for election. For the same reason the 52-year-old Giuseppe Siri, or the Archbishop of Milan Giovanni Battista Montini, who was (mentioned although not a cardinal.

Roncalli's selection was a surprise to all, most particularly to Roncalli, who arrived in Rome with a return train ticket to Venice and who hoped for a short conclave so that he could return home.

Allegedly, French cardinals came to Rome determined to elect a man some had dismissed as over-the-hill. The Frenchmen held their votes together even when Roncalli's candidacy seemed to slip, gathered allies, and eventually got their candidate elected. It is reported, perhaps apocryphally, that one elderly and confused cardinal kept voting for Achille Ratti (the then already long-deceased Pope Pius XI) throughout the balloting.

Roncalli accepted the election and when asked what his regnal name would be, he responded, "We choose John...a name sweet to Us because it is the name of Our father, dear to Us because it is the name of the humble parish church where We were baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including Our own basilica...We love the name of John because it reminds Us of John the Baptist, precursor of our Lord...and the other John, the disciple and evangelist...Perhaps We can, taking the name of this first series of holy Popes, have something of his sanctity and strength of spirit, even—if God wills it—to the spilling of blood".[3] However, confusion was aroused as to what number pope Roncalli was to choose this name, but he impatiently insisted that he was to be known as John XXIII.[4]

He became the first pope since Benedict XV to bestow his scarlet zucchetto on the Secretary of the conclave—in this instance, Alberto di Jorio—immediately after his election and thus make him a cardinal.

The newly-elected Pope John, with his brand new white cassock too tight on his portly figure, appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after Nicola Canali had announced his election. It is said that Pope John had actually been given the medium-sized cassock by mistake (there are 3 sizes of robes, small, medium and large, available because the tailor does not know who the new pope will be); his measurements had been used for the large-size robes.

The case of Giovanni Battista Montini

Giovanni Battista Montini had been one of the stars of the Roman Curia in the 1930s and 1940s. A skilled diplomat and the Substitute (or deputy) Secretary of State, many presumed that he would surely be raised to the College of Cardinals in one of Pope Pius's consistories. For most of his reign, with the exception of the five years Luigi Maglione was Secretary of State, Pius himself acted as his own Secretary of State, a position that he had held under the previous pope, Pius XI. Unexpectedly, Pius removed Montini from the Curia in 1955 and appointed him as the Archbishop of Milan, one of the most senior dioceses in Italy, and one which had produced many popes. Milanese archbishops are invariably made cardinals at the next consistory, which in this case took place in 1958 after the death of Pius XII. Pius XII had only two consistories during his pontificate, in 1946 and 1953. At the Secret Consistory in 1952, Pope Pius revealed to the assembled cardinals that two (Tardini and Montini) were at the very top of his list but turned it down.[5] Tardini and Montini did not get the red hat during the pontificate of Pius XII, who did not have a third consistory before his death in 1958. This meant that some archbishops who could expect the honor because of tradition and importance of their city did not get the red hat then (Montini (Milan), O’Hara (Philadelphia), Cushing (Boston), König (Vienna), Godfrey (Westminster), Barbieri (Montevideo), Castaldo (Naples), Richaud (Bordeaux), and others).

Possibly Montini declined the red hat because his counterpart as the Substitute Secretary of State, Msgr. Domenico Tardini, had already declined elevation to the cardinalate. As Montini felt that he could not accept it as long as Tardini had not, he declined the promotion. Whatever the reason he was not promoted, the situation persisted as a stalemate between the two men's promotion until Montini was promoted to be the new Archbishop of Milan in 1955. Both Montini and Tardini received the regalia of bishops, without being ordained at the time. Tardini remained in Rome as Pro-Secretary of State. Montini was ordained in St. Peter by Cardinal Tisserant, while Pope Pius XII delivered a eulogy from his sick bed over the radio. It was only after Pius XII's death in 1958 that Tardini himself, already of poor health and very much against his own will, was promoted to Secretary of State in his own right, and was created cardinal as well. He died within three years.

For whatever reason, Montini, who was widely tipped as the likely next pope, had he had been a member of the College of Cardinals, was excluded, though even as Archbishop of Milan he still managed to pick up some votes, given that the cardinals are not restricted to choosing a pope from among their ranks. Montini was made a cardinal by the new Pope John XXIII and succeeded him as Pope Paul VI. As a sign of his admiration—and some say also his sympathy for his friend's exile to Milan—Pope John XXIII listed Montini at the top of his list of his first consistory of cardinals. This gave Montini the privilege of being the individual who would celebrate the yearly mass, at the pope's own pleasure, which would commemorate the pope's election as Supreme Pontiff. John XXIII would also go on to consult closely with Cardinal Montini about all his plans concerning the planning and execution of the upcoming Second Vatican Council, whose first session began in 1962.

Duration 4 days
Number of ballots 11
Electors 53
Present 51
Absent 2
Africa 1
Latin America 9
North America 4
Asia 3
Europe 33
Oceania 1
Italians 17

See also



  1. ^  Department of State secret dispatch, "John XXIII," issue date: November 20, 1958, declassified: November 11, Paul L. Williams, The Vatican Exposed (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), pp. 90-92.
  2. ^  The Tablet, November 1, 1958
  3. ^  Department of State secret file, "Cardinal Siri," issue date: April 10, 1961, declassified: February 28, 1994, William, Op. Cit pp.90-92.
  4. ^  Greeley, Andrew: The Making of the Popes: 1978 (Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1979)


  1. August Franzen, Papstgeschichte, Herder Freiburg, 1988, 410.
  2. Franzen 410
  3. Time Magazine. "I Choose John..." November 10, 1958
  4. Reality. The Unlikely Election of John XXIII May 2003
  5. Pio XII, La Allocuzione nel consistorio Segreto del 12 Gennaio 1953 in Pio XII, Discorsi e Radiomessagi di Sua santita Vatican City, 1953, p.455

External links

no:Konklavet 1958 pt:Conclave de 1958 ru:Конклав 1958 года fi:Vuoden 1958 konklaavi