Papal conclave, 1903

Papal conclave, 1903

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 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 25-year pontificate of the liberal diplomat Pope Leo XIII came to an end. For 56 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 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 and a subject of Austria-Hungary; Franz Joseph asked the Pole to do this because the Austrian Cardinal would not impose the veto. The veto was pronounced to the disgust of the other cardinals. The reason for the veto was never established but could have been 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; however, no candidate against whom the veto was claimed had ever been elected Pope in that same conclave. Before 1903, the latest attempted use of a veto was going to be at the 1846 conclave, but the cardinal whom the Austrian Emperor had entrusted to issue the veto arrived too late, finding the conclave over and that Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, the man he was meant to veto, publicly announced as Pope Pius IX.

Patriarch of Venice elected

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 60 possible votes. The new pope took the name Pius X.

Veto abolished

Pius X on his election made 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. Following the precedents established by his two immediate predecessors for the granting of the urbi et orbi blessing since the 1870 invasion of Rome, Pius X gave his first Urbi et Orbi on a balcony facing into St. Peter's Basilica rather than to the crowds outside, so as 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)
  • Reference:Francis A. Burkle-Young, Papal Elections in the Age of Transition 1878-1922 published 2000 by Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 0-7391-0114-5

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