In Ages Past
A Brief History of a Sometimes Long Wait
Not all conclaves have occurred in Rome. After Pope Pius VI died in 1799 a prisoner of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Holy See was in complete disarray. Napoleon had imprisoned several cardinals. In 1800, a conclave was held on the Island of San Giorgio. Cardinal Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonte of Imola took the name Pius VII in tribute to his predecessor. He too would be imprisoned for standing up to Napoleon.
For centuries, Catholic monarchs reserved the right to veto papal elections. In the 1903 conclave, the leading candidate was Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, Leo XIII's Secretary of State. But Emperor Francis Joseph felt Rampolla was hostile to Austrian interests, so Cardinal Jan Puszyna of Krakow (an area under Austrian control) vetoed Rampolla on his behalf. After Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto of Venice was elected pope, one of his first acts was to ban this privilege.
When he was asked in 1997 whether he really believed the Holy Spirit chose the pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger answered:
I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked. I would say that the Holy Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, so it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us.
So who will be the new pope? Only God and the cardinals know, but historically the odds favor a short conclave. The longest of the 20th century was five days in 1922, when Milan's Cardinal Achille Ratti was elected as Pius XI. A champion mountain climber and Vatican librarian, he had only been a Cardinal for eight months. The shortest was in 1939, when Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was elected in two days and three ballots as Pius XII. Blessed John Paul II was elected in three days, and Benedict XVI in two. If this trend continues, there should be a new pope by the end of the week at the latest, God willing, of course.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.