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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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