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Papal conclave, 1903

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The Papal conclave of 1903 was caused by the death of the 93 year old Pope Leo XIII, who at that stage was the third longest reigning pope in history. (Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) passed Leo into third place a century later.)

It saw the election of Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto as Pope Pius X.



Pope Pius X (1903-1914),
the victor in the 1903 conclave, wearing the 1834 Papal Tiara of Pope Gregory XVI.

In 1903 the twenty-five year pontificate of the liberal diplomat Pope Leo XIII came to an end. For fifty-six years the papacy had been led by just two men, Leo and his predecessor, Pius IX. While Pius had been a conservative reactionary, Leo had been seen as a liberal, certainly by the standards of his predecessor. As cardinals gathered, the key question was whether a pope would be chosen who would continue Leo's policies or return to the style of papacy of Pius IX.

Favoured candidate vetoed by Francis Joseph of Austria

When the cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel attention focused on Count Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, Leo's Cardinal Secretary of State. Rampolla was seen as the leading papabile (a cardinal thought likely to be elected pope). As expected, Rampolla was close to being elected, but was then vetoed in the name of Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria by Jan Maurycy Pawel Puzyna de Kosielsko, the Prince-Bishop of Kraków in Austria-Hungary, the Austrian Cardinal would not impose the Veto and Franz Joseph had to ask the Pole. The veto was pronounced to the disgust of the other cardinals. The reason for the veto was never established but could be due to Rampolla's support of the French Third Republic while he was Secretary of State.

Three leading Catholic heads of state claimed the power of veto: the King of France, the King of Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor (the Emperor of Austria after the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire). This was rarely exercised; no candidate against whom the veto was claimed had ever been elected Pope, though in 1846 an attempted veto failed when the cardinal whom the Austrian Emperor had entrusted to issue the veto arrived too late, finding the conclave over and the man he was meant to veto publicly announced as pope.

Patriarch of Venice elected

J.Reiner - Attentat auf Kaiser Franz Joseph

Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph, who vetoed the cardinals' first choice for pope, here shown being the victim of a failed assassination attempt

The blocking of Rampolla, the popular press speculated, threw the conclave wide open. The eventual victor, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, Patriarch of Venice, was a working-class populist conservative, closer in attitude to the papacy of Pius IX than Leo XIII. It was reported after the conclave that a rumour alleged to have been revealed by a conclave participant had it that in the last ballot, Cardinal Sarto received 55 of the 60 possible votes. The new pope took the name Pius X.

Veto abolished

Pius X on his election took two decisions. He formally abolished the veto of heads of state, declaring that anyone who dared introduce a civil veto in the conclave would suffer automatic excommunication (future conclave participants were required to swear an oath not to transmit a veto by a secular monarch to the conclave), and declined to reappoint Rampolla as Secretary of State. Like his predecessors, Pope Pius X disputed the Kingdom of Italy's right to own Rome. He gave his Urbi et Orbi on a balcony facing into St. Peter's Basilica rather than to the crowds outside to symbolise his opposition to Italian rule of Rome and his demand for a return of the States of the Church.

Conclave factfile

  • Dates of conclave: July 31 - August 4 1903
  • Cardinals by country (participating):
    • Unified Kingdom of Italy - 38
    • French Republic - 7
    • Austro-Hungarian Empire - 5
    • Kingdom of Spain - 5
    • German Empire - 3
    • Kingdom of Belgium - 1
    • United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland - 1
    • Kingdom of Portugal - 1
    • United States of America - 1
    • Total - 62
Duration 4 days
Number of ballots 7
Electors 64
Absent 2
Present 62
Africa 0
Latin America 0
North America 1
Asia 0
Europe 61
Oceania 0
Mid-East 0
Italians 36
Veto used by Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria
NEW POPE PIUS X (1903-1914)

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