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The unlikely election of John XXIII

30 November, 1999

Rev. Lawrence F. Murphy’s personal recollections of the epoch-making election of Pope John XXIII.

I had just arrived back in Rome on October 4, 1958. I had studied there earlier for four years and was ordained there in 1956. Now I had just a year and a half to write a dissertation and submit it to the Gregorian University. I would be a busy student.

But I would be an eyewitness to history too. Just four days after I returned to Rome, Pope Pius XII died, and the ancient rituals began. It was all so exciting.

The Sistine Chapel was immediately closed to the public, and the cardinals began to assemble. At the time there were only 52 cardinals in all, and two of these – Joseph Mindzenty of Hungary and Aloysius Stepinac of Yugoslavia – were not free to leave their Communist-controlled countries. Also, Cardinal Mooney of Detroit died just before the beginning of the conclave.

Black smoke

Forty nine purple thrones were arranged along the frescoed walls, each with a canopy. When the new pope was elected by two-thirds of the vote plus one (in the event that he voted for himself), these canopies would be lowered over all of the cardinals’ chairs except the pope-elect. A pot-bellied stove was brought to the chapel from the basement of St. Peter’s Basilica. After each vote in which no one received the necessary majority, the ballots were placed in the stove and burned with straw, causing black smoke to rise from the chimney.

Speculation about the papabili (possible popes) was rampant. Like many others, my friend Fr Charlie Von Euw and I were in St. Peter’s Square on the morning of the first day, October 26, to see the smoke. As expected, it was black. No one had been elected.

One of the Italian cardinals present at the conclave was quite content. He was Angelo Roncalli, Archbishop of Venice, and he knew he didn’t stand a chance of being elected pope. In fact, he had brought only an overnight bag with him to the conclave. He would be home in his beloved Venice quickly enough.

Deadlocked conclave

The conclave was deadlocked. It was mid-afternoon on the third day before word came that the smoke was white; a pope had been elected. Once again speculation was rampant. Was it Archbishop Lercaro of Bologna or perhaps Cardinal Agagianian of Armenia?

My friend and I rushed from the graduate house over to the square, where the long wait began. There was no precedent that we knew of, but it seemed that we waited a long time.

We did not know at the time and would only learn later that the impossible had happened. Two strong candidates had been in a deadlock that could not be broken. And so the cardinals had turned to another, Angelo Roncalli. They thought that Roncalli was a simple man who would do little or no harm. He was also 78 years old. This choice would allow time for a breathing spell, and then a strong candidate could emerge.

‘Inept’ diplomat

Roncalli proved to be an irritant to de Gaulle, which pleased Pius XII. But Roncalli had to be admonished by the pope himself to stop walking the streets and greeting the people. He was told to ride in the limousine like a good nuncio.

Finally, in 1952 Roncalli was replaced. But in an effort to avoid offending France, the eldest daughter of the church, he was made a cardinal and appointed Archbishop of Venice. One can only wonder how Valeri felt at this astonishing turn of events that led to his “inept” replacement being elected the new pope.

Impatient waiting
With thousands of others, we continued to wait. The sun was beginning to set behind the great dome, and still the basilica was in darkness. The central balcony and the vast hall behind it were also in darkness. The windows of the Sistine Chapel were obscured by the Vatican loggia, and only a few lights shone from the Vatican. What was going on? Where was the new pope? Who was he?

We discovered later that two reasons contributed to the delay. One was practical. Cassocks in different sizes had been prepared ahead of time, but the one that had been prepared for a heavyset pope was too small. Signor Gammarelli, the papal tailor, was doing his best to fit the newly elect.

A new John

Roncalli was becoming impatient. “The people are waiting. The square is full. The world is waiting,” he said to the attendants. “I accepted the election. I am now the Pope. I decree that I am John XXIII. Andiamo. Let’s go.”

The panoply began. The Cardinal Dean came forward and said the ancient formula, “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam. (I bring you news of great joy. We have a Pope.) He is Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, and he chooses to be called John XXIII.”

The new Pope said a few words. They were kind, but they were also quite strong and confident. Then he proceeded to give his first blessing to us in the square and to the world (urbi et orbi).

New epoch

Just three months after his election, John XXIII announced plans for the Second Vatican Council; he presided over its early sessions. Some have called the council a watershed in the history of the Church. In September of 2000 John XXIII was beatified by Pope John Paul II. It should not be long before he is canonised a saint.


This article is reprinted from Reality, May 2003. It first appeared in the Liguorian. Reality is a publication of the Irish Redemptorists. The massive bells in the piazza and then all the other bells of Rome began to peal. Surely no one – not even the man who was about to cause it – realised that evening that those bells were tolling the end of an epoch. Roncalli was too simple for that. But the obedience that had restrained his simple genius so long in life was now owed only to himself and to God. No one on earth could restrain him any longer. He was quite free to be himself.The second reason was the new pope’s choice of the name John. The last pope who had taken that name had been John XXIII, an antipope (a false claimant to the papal throne) during the great Western Schism in the 15th century. No pope had take the name since because of this. Therefore, librarians were scattering all over the Vatican checking the libraries. Was he to be John XXIII or John XXIV?Roncalli was hardly the favourite in anybody’s mind, and certainly not in that of Valerio Cardinal Valeri. Valeri knew the reason behind Roncalli’s presence in the Sistine Chapel that October. Years earlier Charles de Gaulle had ordered Valeri, then nuncio, out of France because he had been there during the Nazi occupation. Valeri was a good man and had looked out for the people in a very difficult time, but de Gaulle could not abide him. Valeri, however, was a very close friend of Pius XII. Pius XII had been furious and had replaced Valeri with the most inept man in the diplomatic corps. It was none other than Roncalli, who had been in Istanbul where he could do little or no harm. And so in 1945 he was off to Paris.My friend and I returned to the graduate house to continue our studies. We took turns listening to the news on the radio the rest of that day, all through the next, and into the third day, October 28.On the afternoon of October 25, the 49 cardinals processed into the Sistine Chapel, which was then closed and locked. No one could enter or leave until a pope was elected.