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Papal conclave, 1939


Papal conclave, 1939

Papal conclave
March 1939
Coat of arms during the vacancy of the Holy See
Dates and location
1–2 March 1939
Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace,
Vatican City
Key officials
Dean Gennaro Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte
Sub-Dean Donato Sbarretti
Camerlengo Eugenio Pacelli
Protopriest William Henry O'Connell
Protodeacon Camillo Caccia-Dominioni
Secretary Vincenzo Santoro
Ballots 3
Elected Pope
Eugenio Pacelli
(Name taken: Pius XII)

The Papal conclave of 1939 was convoked on the brink of World War II with the death of Pope Pius XI on 10 February that year in the Apostolic Palace. With all 62 living cardinals in attendance, the conclave to elect Pius' successor began on 1 March and ended a day later, on 2 March, after three ballots. The cardinals elected Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, then Camerlengo and the deceased pontiff's Secretary of State, as the new pope. He accepted the election and took the regnal name of Pope Pius XII.


  • Papabili and balloting 1
  • Election of Pacelli 2
  • Choice of name and goals upon election 3
  • Trivia 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6

Papabili and balloting

Day Ballot Result
1 1 No pope elected
2 2
3 Pope elected

Like St. Pius X, Pope Pius XI was seen as a blunt-spoken, no-nonsense pontiff, and so the cardinals decided that they needed a soft-spoken diplomat to guide them through the forthcoming war.

Among the likely contenders for the papacy were August Hlond of Gniezno-Poznań, Karl Joseph Schulte of Cologne, the Curial Eugène-Gabriel-Gervais-Laurent Tisserant, Ildefonso Schuster of Milan, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza of Venice, Maurilio Fossati of Turin, and Camerlengo and Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli. The prospect of a non-Italian pope (the last of which, until that point, had been Pope Adrian VI, 1522) was considered better in 1939 than in previous conclaves.[1]

While Cardinal Pacelli was not the only known Papabile at the Conclave he was heavily favored among the cardinals to win due to hints made by Pope Pius XI prior to his death that he favored Pacelli as his successor.[2] On 15 December 1937, during his last consistory, Pius XI strongly hinted to the cardinals that he expected Pacelli to be his successor, saying "He is in your midst."[3][4] He had previously been quoted as saying: "When today the Pope dies, you'll get another one tomorrow, because the Church continues. It would be a much bigger tragedy, if Cardinal Pacelli dies, because there is only one. I pray every day, God may send another one into one of our seminaries, but as of today, there is only one in this world."[5]

During a break after the second ballot, Pacelli suffered a fall down a flight of stairs, but was only bruised.[6]

Election of Pacelli

On the second day and ballot, Pacelli received the exact two-thirds majority, but, according to rumour, he then requested another ballot to confirm the validity of his election. He was again elected on the third ballot (with 61 votes), accepted and took the regnal name of Pius XII.

To the question "Acceptasne electionem de te canonice factam in Summum Pontificem ?", Pacelli replied "Accepto in crucem" (I accept it as a cross).

This was only the fourth time since 1823 (the others being in 1829, 1878 and 1914) that a cardinal widely viewed as papabile was the one actually chosen. Moreover, Pacelli was the first Secretary of State to become pope since Clement IX (1667), the first Camerlengo since Leo XIII (1878), the first member of the Roman Curia since Gregory XVI (1831), and the first Roman since Clement X (1670). The white smoke signifying a successful election appeared at 5:30 pm, but confusingly began to turn black.[1] However, Monsignor Vincenzo Santoro, the conclave's secretary, then sent a note to Vatican Radio to confirm that the smoke was indeed white and Eugenio Pacelli was now Pope Pius XII.[7] Protodeacon Camillo Caccia-Dominioni later gave the Latin Habemus Papam announcement on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. The following is a transcription of the Habemus Papam delivered by the cardinal as recorded.

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
Habemus Papam;
Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum,
Dominum Eugenium Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Pacelli,
Qui sibi nomen imposuit Pium.[8][9][10]

This can be translated into English as follows:

I announce to you a great joy
We have a Pope
The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord
Lord Eugenio Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Pacelli
Who takes to himself the name Pius.

(It is to be noted that in the above announcement, Cardinal Caccia-Dominioni omitted the numeral of the new Pope's papal name, which was the same as that of his immediate predecessor, Pope Pius XI.)

In joy of Pacelli's election, the crowd below in St. Peter's Square began to sing the hymn Christus Vincit.

Inside the Vatican, Pius XII continued to occupy his apartment as Secretary of State. He had given orders to his housekeepers, to pack everything in order to make way for the next Secretary, as every new Pope has a given right for new appointments. Later Madre Pascalina remembered the Vatican apartment with the closed windows:

About 5.30 pm we were all still occupied with packing and cleaning the rooms, when we heard from St. Peter’s Square yelling and clapping noises. We did not dare to open the windows and look (this was strictly forbidden) and nobody came to tell us. So we waited ... until the door to the Office opened. In the entrance stood a tall and thin figure, – now dressed in white. No more Cardinal Pacelli, it was Pope Pius XII.

How can one forget such a moment. We sisters cried and kneeled in front of him and kissed the hand of the Holy Father, for the first time. He had wet eyes too. Looking down on himself, he said, look what they have done to me.[11]
Duration 2 days
Number of ballots 3
Electors 62
Absent 0
Africa 0
Latin America 2
North America 4
Asia 1
Europe 55
Oceania 0
Italians 35
NEW POPE PIUS XII (1939–1958)

Choice of name and goals upon election

Pope Pius XII explained his choice of Pius as his regnal name by saying, "I call myself Pius; my whole life was under Popes with this name, but especially as a sign of gratitude towards Pius XI."[12]

After his election, Pius XII listed three objectives as pontiff.[13]

  1. A new translation of the psalms, daily recited by the religious and priests, in order for the clergy to better appreciate the beauty and richness of the Old Testament. This translation was completed in 1945.
  2. A definition of the Dogma of the Assumption. This necessitated numerous studies into Church history and consultations with the episcopate worldwide. The dogma was proclaimed in November 1950.
  3. Increased archaeological excavations under St Peter's Basilica in Rome, to determine, whether St. Peter was actually buried there, or whether the Church subjected itself for more than 1500 years to a pious hoax. This was a controversial point, because of the real possibility of a major embarrassment and technical concerns, to conduct excavations under the main altar, close to the Bernini columns of the papal altar and the main support of the Michelangelo’s cupola. The first results regarding the tomb of St. Peter were published in 1950.


See also

Cardinal electors for the papal conclave, 1939


  1. ^ a b TIME Magazine. Death of a Pope 20 February 1939
  2. ^ Weigel, George (21 April 2005). "Conclaves: Surprises abound in the Sistine Chapel". The Madison Catholic Herald Online. Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  3. ^ "Medius vestrum stetit quem vos nescetis. Everybody knew what the pope meant". Domenico Cardinale Tardini, Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1960, p. 105 (Italian)
  4. ^ Lehnert, Pascalina (1986). Ich durfte Ihm Dienen: Erinnerungen an Papst Pius XII (in Deutsch). Würzburg: Naumann. p. 57.  
  5. ^ Lehnert, Pascalina (1986). Ich durfte Ihm Dienen: Erinnerungen an Papst Pius XII (in Deutsch). Würzburg: Naumann. p. 49.  
  6. ^ TIME Magazine. "Habemus Papam" 13 March 1939
  7. ^ Inside the Vatican. The "Siri Thesis" Unravles
  8. ^ Habemus Papam – Pope Pius XII. YouTube. Accessed on December 21, 2012.
  9. ^ Habemus Papam! – Pope Pio XII. YouTube. Accessed on March 17, 2013.
  10. ^ Habemus Papam Pope Pius XII. YouTube. Accessed on October 10, 2013
  11. ^ Lehnert, Pascalina (1986). Ich durfte Ihm Dienen: Erinnerungen an Papst Pius XII (in Deutsch). Würzburg: Naumann. p. 69.  
  12. ^ Pius XII, quoted in Joseph Brosch, Pius XII, Lehrer der Wahrheit, Kreuzring, Trier,1968, p. 45
  13. ^ Domenico Cardinale Tardini, Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1960, pp. 75–76.
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