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Papal conclave, 1939

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Papal conclave, March 1939
Dates March 1–March 2, 1939
Location Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
Dean Gennaro Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte
Vice Dean Donato Sbarretti
Camerlengo Eugenio Pacelli
Protodeacon Camillo Caccia-Dominioni
Ballots Pope elected after 3 ballots
Elected Pope Eugenio Pacelli
(took name Pius XII)

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

Papabili and balloting

Like St. Pius X, Pope Pius XI was seen as a blunt-spoken, no-nonsense pontiff, and so the cardinals, all sixty-two of whom participated at the conclave, 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[1]. The prospect of a non-Italian pope (the last of which, until that point, had been Pope Adrian VI in 1522) was considered better in 1939 than in previous conclaves[2].

Cardinal Pacelli received 35 votes in the first ballot, and other votes went to Luigi Maglione, Elia Dalla Costa of Florence, and Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve of Quebec[3]. On the second ballot, Pacelli obtained five more votes, reaching a total of 40[4].

Pacelli's election


On the second day and ballot, Pacelli, whose sixty-third birthday it was, received the exact two-thirds majority, but 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. 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 Curia since Gregory XVI (1831), and the first Roman since Clement X (1670).

The white smoke signifying a successful election appeared at 5:30 p.m., 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[5]. Protodeacon Camillo Caccia-Dominioni later gave the Latin Habemus Papam announcement on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, and in joy of Pacelli's election, the crowd below in St. Peter's Square began to sing the hymn Christus Vincit.

Inside the Vatican, Eugenio Pacelli 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, P.M. 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.[6]

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)

Goals upon election

After his election, Pius XII listed three objectives as pontiff.[7]

  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.[8] The first results regarding the tomb of St. Peter were published in 1950.[9]


  • The conclave of 1939 was the shortest one of the 20th century, with that of August 1978 ranking second.
  • Cardinal Pacelli, the eventual winner, had allegedly voted for Federico Cardinal Tedeschini.
  • During a break after the second ballot, Pacelli suffered a fall down a flight of stairs, but was only bruised[10].


  1. 1.0 1.1 TIME Magazine. Death of a Pope February 20, 1939
  2. Ibid.
  3. TIME Magazine. "Habemus Papam" March 13, 1939
  4. Ibid.
  5. Inside the Vatican. The "Siri Thesis" Unravles
  6. Lehnert,Pascalina Ich durfte Ihm Dienen, Erinnerungen an Papst Pius XII. Naumann, Würzburg, 1986, 69
  7. Domenico Cardinale Tardini, Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1960, p.75
  8. Domenico Cardinale Tardini, Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1960, p.76
  9. Domenico Cardinale Tardini, Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1960, p. 76.
  10. TIME Magazine. "Habemus Papam" March 13, 1939

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