1939 papal conclave

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Papal conclave
March 1939
Dates and location
1–2 March 1939
Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace,
Vatican City
Key officials
DeanGennaro Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte
Sub-deanDonato Sbarretti
CamerlengoEugenio Pacelli
ProtopriestWilliam Henry O'Connell
ProtodeaconCamillo Caccia-Dominioni
SecretaryVincenzo Santoro
Elected pope
Eugenio Pacelli
Name taken: Pius XII
← 1922
1958 →

The papal conclave held on 1 and 2 March 1939 saw Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli elected on the third ballot to succeed Pius XI, who had died on 10 February, as pope. All 62 cardinals took part. Pacelli, who had been camerlengo and secretary of state, took the name Pius XII. The day was his 63rd birthday.

The conclave of 1939 was the shortest of the 20th century.[1] It was also the last to include all living cardinals.

Pacelli was the first member of the Roman Curia to become pope since Gregory XVI (1831)[2] and the first Roman since Innocent XIII (1721).[3]


Time magazine announced that likely contenders for the papacy included August Hlond of Gniezno-Poznań, Karl Joseph Schulte of Cologne, the Curia veteran Eugène-Gabriel-Gervais-Laurent Tisserant, Ildefonso Schuster of Milan, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza of Venice, Maurilio Fossati of Turin, and Eugenio Pacelli, a longtime diplomat in the service of the Holy See. The prospect of a non-Italian pope for the first time since Adrian VI in 1522 was considered more likely than in previous conclaves.[4][5] On 13 February, The New York Times dismissed the idea of a non-Italian given the current state of international hostilities, though it thought Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve of Quebec the least objectionable to the contending powers. It discounted Pacelli since there was no precedent for the election of the secretary of state, and precedent argued against the election of any member of the Curia as well as three key Italians who were members of religious orders. The five Italians remaining were Alessio Ascalesi of Naples, Giovanni Nasalli Rocca di Corneliano of Bologna, Luigi Lavitrano of Palermo, Maurilio Fossati of Turin, and Elia dalla Costa of Florence.[6] By 20 February the paper found greater interest in the curial cardinals, Francesco Marmaggi, Massimo Massimi, and Luigi Maglione.[7]

Pacelli was heavily favored among the cardinals to win. Pius XI had hinted that he favored Pacelli as his successor.[8] 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."[9][10] 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."[10]

Like Pius X, Pius XI had been a blunt-spoken, no-nonsense pontiff. Assembling in 1939 as the outbreak of hostilities that became the Second World War was widely anticipated, the cardinals turned to a soft-spoken diplomat.


Pacelli, in his role as Camerlengo, announced on 10 February that the College would wait the maximum time allowed, eighteen days from the death of the pope, to start the conclave. The time period before starting had been lengthened following the previous conclave, for which three North American cardinals had arrived too late to participate.[11][12] When the 31 cardinals available discussed the question on 11 February, they amended his plan only to provide that they would start earlier if all those who planned to attend had arrived in Rome.[5] The cardinals arrived slowly in Rome, with just 37 attending the papal funeral on 14 February[13] and 46 at a funeral Mass on 18 February.[14] By 20 February, starting the conclave on 28 February appeared to be a possibility, as only three non-Italians had yet to arrive: William Henry O'Connell of Boston, Sebastião da Silveira Cintra of Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago Copello of Buenos Aires.[15] On 22 February the cardinals sitting in general congregation settled on 1 March, expecting the three to arrive at Naples on the S.S. Neptunia on that morning.[16]

The conclave was held in the Apostolic Palace. All the cardinals attended, 35 Italians and 27 from other countries.[6] The doors closed at 6:17 pm.[17]

Pacelli won a narrow victory on the second ballot with the lowest possible two-thirds majority, 42 out of 62. He then asked for an additional ballot to confirm his election by a larger margin.[11][a] To the question "Acceptasne electionem de te canonice factam in Summum Pontificem?", Pacelli replied "Accepto in crucem" (I accept it as a cross). He explained his choice of Pius 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."[19]

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)

The white smoke signifying a successful election appeared at 5:30 pm, but began to turn black.[4] Vincenzo Santoro, the conclave secretary, then sent a note to Vatican Radio to confirm that the smoke was white and Pacelli had been elected.[20] At 6:06 pm,[2] the Protodeacon, Cardinal Camillo Caccia-Dominioni, made the Habemus Papam announcement in Latin from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. He said that the new pope had chosen the name Pius and did not mention the ordinal "the twelfth".[21][22][23] The crowd below in St. Peter's Square began to sing the hymn Christus Vincit.[2]

Change in conclave procedure[edit]

Pius had been narrowly elected before seeking an additional ballot to demonstrate wider support, and he knew that a very close ballot in the 1914 conclave had raised the question of the impact of a cardinal's vote for himself. Pius promulgated the apostolic constitution Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis on 8 December 1945, more than six years after his election. He made only two significant changes in conclave procedures, otherwise following those established by Pope Pius X on 25 December 1904 with the constitution Vacante Sede Apostolica.[24] (1) He increased the majority required for election from two-thirds of those voting to two-thirds plus one, so that an elector's vote for himself would be insufficient to produce a two-thirds majority. He also eliminated the rule against voting for oneself, which the two-thirds-plus-one rule obviated.[25][26] It holds, though, that if one had an exact two-thirds majority, not counting one's own vote, a cardinal could cast the deciding vote for himself. (2) From 1621 to 1945, the ballots were signed with folded over flaps to conceal the signatures of the electors. Pius XII removed the signature portion of the new form of ballot, so that a completely secret ballot is now cast by each elector with the oath taken at the same moment, now being anonymous. All this is clearly stated in the Apostolic Constitution "Vancantis Apostolicae Sedis" promulgated by Pius XII on 8 December 1945.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Cardinal electors for the 1939 papal conclave


  1. ^ Another account says he received 41 votes on the second ballot.[18] Another adds that Pacelli's ballot was examined after the second ballot to establish that he had not voted for himself.[11]


  1. ^ Allen Jr., John L. (2002). Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385504560. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "Hailed by Throngs" (PDF). The New York Times. 3 March 1939. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  3. ^ Padellaro, Nazareno (1957). Portrait of Pius XII. Dutton. p. 7.
  4. ^ a b "Death of a Pope". Time. 20 February 1939. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007.
  5. ^ a b "31 Cardinals Meet to Plan Conclave" (PDF). New York Times. 12 February 1939. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  6. ^ a b "5 Cardinals Lead in Vatican Contest" (PDF). New York Times. 13 February 1939. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  7. ^ "Vatican Regards Americans Highly" (PDF). New York Times. 20 February 1939. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  8. ^ Weigel, George (21 April 2005). "Conclaves: Surprises abound in the Sistine Chapel". Madison Catholic Herald. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
  9. ^ "Medius vestrum stetit quem vos nescetis. Everybody knew what the pope meant". Domenico Cardinale Tardini, Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1960, p. 105 (in Italian)
  10. ^ a b Lehnert, Pascalina (1986). Ich durfte Ihm Dienen: Erinnerungen an Papst Pius XII (in German). Würzburg: Naumann. pp. 49, 57. ISBN 3885670410.
  11. ^ a b c Walsh, Michael (2003). The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History of Papal Elections. Sheed & Ward. p. 150. ISBN 9781461601814. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  12. ^ "Conclave to Elect Pope is Postponed to March 1" (PDF). New York Times. 11 February 1939. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  13. ^ "Pope Pius is Buried in St. Peter's Crypt with Splendid Rite" (PDF). New York Times. 13 February 1939. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  14. ^ "Rites at St. Peter's Held by Cardinals" (PDF). New York Times. 18 February 1939. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  15. ^ "Rites for Pope Pius Brought to a Close" (PDF). New York Times. 20 February 1939. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  16. ^ "Vatican Conclave is Set for March 1" (PDF). New York Times. 22 February 1939. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  17. ^ "Vatican Door Shut on 62 Cardinals as Conclave Opens to Elect Pope" (PDF). The New York Times. 2 March 1939. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  18. ^ Pham, John-Peter (2004). Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession. Oxford University Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-19-517834-0. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  19. ^ Brosch, Joseph (1968). Pius XII, Lehrer der Wahrheit. Trier: Kreuzring. p. 45.
  20. ^ "The "Siri Thesis" Unravels". Inside the Vatican. Archived from the original on 15 February 2007. Retrieved 11 April 2007.
  21. ^ "Habemus Papam – Pope Pius XII". YouTube. Archived from the original on 13 December 2021. Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  22. ^ "Habemus Papam! – Pope Pio XII" (in Italian). YouTube. Archived from the original on 13 December 2021. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  23. ^ "Habemus Papam Pope Pius XII" (in Italian). YouTube. Archived from the original on 13 December 2021. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
  24. ^ Jedin, Hubert, ed. (1981). "The Code and Development of Canon Law to 1974". The Church in the Modern Age. Vol. X. London: Burns & Oates. p. 157. ISBN 9780860120926. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  25. ^ Pham, John-Peter (2004). Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession. Oxford University Press. p. 333. ISBN 978-0-19-517834-0. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  26. ^ Pope Pius XII (8 December 1945). Vacantis Apostolicae Sedis (in Latin). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 25 November 2017; paragraph 68.

External links[edit]