Now that the date has been set, how long until we have a Pope?

conclaveAlthough I have consciously avoided much speculation about possible papabile, what goes on behind the scenes, or even who I prefer to be the new Pope (as I don’t think this is a political election in which the popularity of a given cardinal plays any part, and besides, it’s not up to me to decide who should be Pope – thank God!), there is some merit in thinking about the question that is the headline of this post: how long can we expect the conclave to take? At the very least it will be informative.

Of the conclaves held in the 20th and 21st centuries, the longest was the 1922 one, in which Pius XI was elected. His election took 14 ballots, or five days. The shortest was the next one, in 1939, electing Pius XII. This took only three ballots, or less than two full days. On average, a conclave in the specified period took roughly 7 ballots, which coincides with 4 or 5 days.

Oddly enough, the larger number of electors in the most recent conclaves, as compared to earlier conclaves, does not lengthen an election significantly. The conclaves of 2005 (115 electors choosing Benedict XVI) and the first of 1978 (111 electors; John Paul I) were among the shortest with 4 ballots each. The conclaves of 1914 (57 electors; Benedict XV) and 1922 (53 electors) needed 10 and 14 ballots respectively.

Generally, based on the numbers, we may expect the upcoming conclave to take between 4 and 6 ballots, as those were the numbers needed in the past four elections (with the exception of the second conclave of 1978, which elected Pope John Paul II – this had 8 ballots). With a starting date of 12 March, we may expect the “Habemus papam!” to resound across St. Peter’s Square and the world on 13, 14 or 15 March, or maybe the 16th or 17th (but this is, in my opinion, less likely).

But, as with all predictions regarding the elections of Popes, all this may turn out to be wrong. The conclave may be over within less than two days, or take a week or longer. In the end, there’s really no telling what will transpire.

Here is a little table with some information about the conclaves of the 20th and 21st centuries:

  • 31 July – 4 August 1903: 62 cardinals elected Giuseppe Melchiore Cardinal Sarto, the Patriarch of Venice, as Pope Pius X. The election took 7 ballots. This was the last conclave in which a veto was used.
  • 31 August – 3 September 1914: 57 cardinals elected Giacomo Cardinal della Chiesa, the Archbishop of Bologna, as Pope Benedict XV. The election took 10 ballots.
  • 2 – 6 February 1922: 53 cardinals elected Achille Cardinal Ratti, the Archbishop of Milan, as Pope Pius XI. The election took 14 ballots.
  • 1 – 2 March 1939: 62 cardinals elected Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the Secretary of State, as Pope Pius XII. The elections took 3 ballots. It is said that the third ballot was on the request of Cardinal Pacelli, who had already won the majority vote after the second ballot, to confirm his election.
  • 25 – 28 October 1958: 49 cardinals elected Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, as Pope John XXIII. The election took 11 ballots.
  • 19 – 21 June 1963: 80 cardinals elected Giovanni Battista Cardinal Montini, the Archbishop of Milan, as Pope Paul VI. The election took 6 ballots.
  • 25 – 26 August 1978: 111 cardinals elected Albino Cardinal Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, as Pope John Paul I. The election took 5 ballots.
  • 14 – 16 October 1978: 111 cardinals elected Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The election took 8 ballots. This was the first conclave in modern times in which a non-Italian was elected.
  • 18 – 19 April 2005: 115 cardinals elected Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as Pope Benedict XVI. The election took 4 ballots.

Conclave preacher

Maltese cardinal Prosper Grech receivesJust before Msgr. Guido Marini sends everyone who is not a cardinal elector out of the Sistine Chapel, on the first day of the conclave, the assembled cardinals will hear a sermon by a prelate who is specifically selected for the job. For this edition of the papal election the choice has fallen on Prosper Cardinal Grech, the 87-year-old expert in Patristics, who was created a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in February 2012.

He himself is not an elector, so he will leave the Chapel after he has finished his preaching, but just like the fact that the over-80 cardinals participate in the General Congregations, this is an expression of the fact that the older members of the College of Cardinals certainly retain their influence and responsibility, even if they no longer have the duty to cast a vote.

Cardinal Grech is an Augustinian friar from Malta who specialises in studies of the Bible, hermeneutics and Patristics. He has an interesting connection with previous conclaves: he heard the confession of Cardinal Montini shortly before the latter became Pope Paul VI in 1963.

Depending on the length of the conclave, the cardinals will also hear addresses by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran after three voting days, Cardinal Godfried Danneels after another seven ballots, and Cardinal Giovanni Re after yet another seven ballots have gone by without a result. These three cardinals are the senior Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal Priest and Cardinal Bishop respectively.

Photo credit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images