Papal Predictions: Black Smoke Through Wednesday Paves Way For Outsiders

How long the conclave lasts is often an indicator of who is likely to walk out as Pope. The favorites are typically elected quickly, and deadlocks can lead to a surprise compromise candidate.

Scanning white smoke throughout history
Scanning white smoke throughout history
Andrea Tornielli

VATICAN CITY - Even this time, the duration of conclave matters. A short election, concluding within a day or two, will show that one candidate has been stronger than the others since the outset. A longer election, however, could bring some surprises.

There are cardinals who aren’t expecting a short conclave, like the last one in 2005. Then, the cardinals closed themselves inside the Sistine Chapel in the late afternoon of Monday, April 18. The first "fumata" was black, and the votes widely dispersed. The only cardinal to come out with any significant "packet" of consensus was the 78-year-old German Cardinal, who would later described himself as “a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”

To elect Benedict XVI, four ballots were needed. The first was on that Monday evening, and two more rounds of voting the next morning also produced black smoke from the chimney at midday on Tuesday. The break for lunch was decisive to convince the uncertain, and the first afternoon ballot produced the necessary two-thirds majority to elect Joseph Ratzinger.

The other two lighting-quick conclaves over the past century were those of March 1939, the fastest balloting ever; only three rounds were needed to elect Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, who had been the Secretary of State for his predecessor. Although there wasn’t unrest like there is today with regards to the Curia, Pacelli was a great diplomat. At that time, war was at the gates and the cardinals decided quickly: there was no contest.

The other short conclave was the first one of 1978, which elected John Paul I, and lasted exactly the same four ballots as the election of Ratzinger. The cardinals met on August 25, with an oppressing heat bearing down on them. There wasn’t the Casa Santa Marta, with its comfortable lodgings -- one cardinal even broke the seal of a window, not caring about the seclusion! The unbearable heat helped move the decision along, and it was the Patriarch of Venice, Albino Luciani, who ascended to the throne of St. Peter: The pastoral pope who smiled at the world yet died after 33 days of his pontificate.

Last century's prize for longest conclave goes to the 1922 election that put Archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti, onto the throne. It took five days of complicated voting -- a good 14 rounds of balloting -- to elect a pope, who took the name Pius XI.

Another relatively long conclave was that of 1958. There were only 53 cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, because during the previous five years, Pope Pius XII hadn’t celebrated any consistories to anoint new "princes of the Church."

When the outsiders step in

It wasn’t easy to choose Pius XII's successor: the cardinals wanted a pope who would replace the many curial seats that were vacant, starting with the Secretary of the State. The heir apparent was the Archbishop of Genoa Giuseppe Siri, but he was too young. “If we elect him, we won’t have a Holy Father, but an eternal one,” one cardinal was said to have quipped.

With the mediation of the cardinals of the Roman Curia, a compromise candidate was found in Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, then 70, the Patriarch of Venice. The white smoke for John XXIII came after 11 ballots. Not so young, he was expected to be a transitional pope, and the Curia thought that they could control him. Instead, as soon as he was elected, he announced the Second Vatican Council, which changed the face of the Church.

Finally, in the group of the “mid-length” conclaves are the elections of June 1963 and October 1978. The first brought the Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, to the seat of St. Peter as Pope Paul VI. This is one of the cases that defies the saying “he who enters conclave as pope, leaves it as a cardinal.” Despite the authority of his candidature, this wasn’t a simple election, but he wound up prevailing.

In October 1978, a month and a half after the rapid election and brief reign of the Italian Luciani, the cardinals gathered again, tentatively trying to see who might take his place. This time, however, they were divided and the situation became deadlocked after the first day. From the second day, Italy was out of the game, which is when a true outsider candidacy emerged: Karol Wojtyla, 58, Archbishop of Krakow. After eight ballots, he was elected on October 16.

This time, if the white smoke has appeared by Wednesday, it’s likely to be one of the favorites. However, from Thursday morning onwards, it’s the outsiders who will suddenly become the frontrunners.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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