Papal conclave, 1958

Papal conclave
October 1958

Coat of arms during the vacancy of the Holy See
Dates and location
25–28 October 1958
Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace,
Vatican City
Key officials
Dean Eugène Tisserant
Sub-Dean Clemente Micara
Camerlengo Benedetto Aloisi Masella
Protodeacon Nicola Canali
Secretary Alberto di Jorio
Ballots 11
Elected Pope
Angelo Roncalli
(Name taken: John XXIII)

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

The conclave and its papabili

Day Ballot Result
1 1 No pope elected
2 2
3 6
4 10
11 Pope elected

The conclave was held from 25 to 28 October, at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. 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-four 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. Edward Mooney died before the conclave, leaving 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 23 November 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 cardinals mentioned by the media at the time. The mild-mannered former diplomat, of rural origins, took the name Pope John XXIII. He was the second Patriarch of Venice to be elected Pontiff in the 20th century; the first was Pope Pius X, and a third would be 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. Also relatively young was 52-year-old Giuseppe Siri.

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.[lower-alpha 1]

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".[4] However, confusion was aroused as to what number Pope John was to choose this name, but he impatiently insisted that he was to be known as John XXIII.[5]

Later after his election, the pope revealed to Cardinal Maurice Feltin an additional reason for choosing the name of John XXIII: "in memory of France and in the memory of John XXII who continued the history of the papacy in France".[6]

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 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 XII 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.[7] 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.

Siri thesis

Main article: Siri Thesis

Some Sedevacantists believed that Cardinal Siri was actually elected Pope in the 1958 papal conclave, on Sunday 26 October, even taking the name of Gregory XVII, but that his election was then suppressed, duress having been applied to him, especially by the French Cardinals led by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Eugène Tisserant, who would have brought up the threat of anti-Catholic turmoils in USSR dominated Eastern Europe, if Cardinal Siri, considered a staunch anti-Communist, became the new Pope. There was confusion prior to the final election concerning the smoke and who was really elected pope.


Duration 4 days
Number of ballots 11
Electors 53
Present 49
Absent 2
Africa 1
Latin America 9
North America 3
Asia 3
Europe 32
Oceania 1
Italians 16

In His book The Making of the Popes: 1978, Andrew Greeley states in the endnotes that a cardinal left the conclave with the vote totals written in pencil on his sleeve.

The balloting according to Father Greeley
Ballot: 12345final
Ernesto Ruffini 171715551
Grégoire-Pierre Agagianian 131312861
Angelo Roncalli 778152038
Benedetto Aloisi Masella 564321
Alfredo Ottaviani 25816159

See also



  1. Some commentators like William Doino dispute the contention that Roncalli was a non-papabile and argue that "[b]y the time of Pius XII’s death, in 1958, Cardinal Roncalli 'contrary to the idea he came out of nowhere to become pope' was actually one of those favored to be elected. He was well known, well liked and trusted."[3]


  1. ^ Department of State secret dispatch, "John XXIII," issue date: 20 November 1958, declassified: 11 November, Paul L. Williams, The Vatican Exposed (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), pp. 90–92.
  2. ^ The Tablet, 1 November 1958
  3. ^ Department of State secret file, "Cardinal Siri," issue date: 10 April 1961, declassified: 28 February 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. Doino, William Jr. (2 July 2012). "Pope John XXIII: Conserver of Tradition". First Things. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  4. Time Magazine. "I Choose John..." 10 November 1958
  5. Reality. The Unlikely Election of John XXIII May 2003
  6. Hebblethwaite, Peter (1994), John XXIII, Pope of the Council (rev ed.), Glasgow: Harper Collins, p. 220
  7. 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
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