The Conclave : 

August 25th - 26th, 1978



August 25th 1978... 111 voters. The five continents represented. The universality of the Church becomes present in this conclave that will have to choose the successor of Paul VI.

The Cardinals... they have this delicate task, so important, but the Holy Spirit will be with them.

The Cardinals... the youngest is 49 years old (Jaime Sin, Archbishop of Manila), the oldest, 79 years old (Frantisek Tomasek, Archbishop of Prague).

It's an unique adventure. They feel like children who go to school for the first time. This adventure that many would want to live.

The Cardinals must make an oath: not to reveal anything about the votes under penalty of ex-communion. The most hidden secret? Cardinal Luciani has told his niece Pia which cell had been assigned to him, who his neighbours are, what the cell is like. But these things, can be spoken of. Also the new Pope can explain what had happened to him on that memorable day - August 26th 1978. Even more, his successor, John Paul II, can say, during his visit to Pope Luciani's native land on August 1979, that Cardinal Luciani had been chosen at the fourth ballot.

It was said about microphones within the conclave, sophisticated systems of communications or not: it is enough to think about the famous stove where the votes of the Cardinals are burned giving origin to the black, white or, in this case, grey smoke. Everybody wants to know... Sometimes, journalists try to set a 'trap' for the electors so that they can extract some data concerning the votes.

But the Cardinals speak: some apologizing for not being able to say anything; others, however, talking, yes, but trying not to break the secret. They want to speak, would want to speak... Some of them will say that they have touched the Holy Spirit with the hand. They have lived almost, almost like days of 'camping' in some area of the mountains. This time the 'tent' has become a Spartan cell; sometimes improvised under the stairs. Some lucky people had running water; others had to fetch it from the 'stream' with a washbasin. But there are some differences: in the mountain, there is fresh air, it is possible to sleep under the stars. In the conclave, however, there is no fresh air: it's made the charge of the typical heat of August days in Rome. There is not the possibility of sleeping under the stars: everything is closed. Not everything: one Cardinal can't stand it any more and perhaps he has managed to watch the stars from an unsealed window. But, who can sleep when on the following day the votes begin?

Now, we leave the place to the colourful stories that the protagonists themselves have left us and some descriptions of the conditions under which they have lived in the conclave. Conditions that now have been changed by John Paul II for a future conclave with the construction of lodging suitable to the circumstances. This one, perhaps, will not have the same 'flavour' of the days lived in previous conclaves... 


Gloria C. Molinari



Memories from the conclave





The refectory of the conclave

One of the cells of the Cardinals


Msgr. Martin closes the doors of the conclave

The Cardinals inside the

 Sistine Chapel

shortly before their confinement 



"I remember that, Saturday morning, going out from the Sistine Chapel, we met Patriarch Luciani in the elevator. Then we told him: " The votes are increasing ". He shielded himself saying: " This is only a summer storm ". 


Cardinal Lazlo Lékai

 Archbishop of Esztergom


" I had cell number 65, while Cardinal Luciani had cell 60. At the beginning of the conclave, I had not seen him but, on Saturday afternoon, we left our cells at the same time to go and vote. I embraced him; it was clear that something was being prepared. He told me: " Tempestas magna est super me". I encouraged him ".


Cardinal Joseph Malula

Archbishop of Kinshasa "

It seemed to me he was caught by a kind of internal fervour, but he tried not to show it in any way".


Cardinal Paul Gouyon

Archbishop of Rennes


" We both went (as in Seminary times) to look for water with the washbasin, being deprived of running water in our cells. A few hours later, in front of the election of the Cardinals who had just designated him as a Pope, in his usual, ordinary manner, he replied: " I accept".


Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro

Archbishop of Karachi


" The conclave will not last more than three days, maximum four. After the third day, it is not possible to live any more in these conditions. Perhaps a chair is taken and made Pope as long as we are leaving. Do you know what I take to the enclosure ? Half a bottle of cognac. Not for me, but for the elected one. I have done it in the previous conclaves (n. f. a. those of John XXIII and Paul VI) and it was useful. Believe me".


Cardinal Giuseppe Siri

Archbishop of Genova


" The day of entering the conclave, I had a small suitcase with me and the Nuns asked me where I had put my necessary personal effects for all the duration of the conclave. I replied that, since everything would be solved very quickly, I had not considered it necessary to bring too many things ".


Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum

Archbishop of Dakar


" We arrived at 4.30 PM to enter the conclave. My cell was number 88; it formed a suite with 86, which had been assigned to Cardinal Duval. Fortunately, it was one of the cells which had running water. Cardinal Luciani, like many others, had to take a washbasin to look for some water.

Our suite even had a shower, the last luxury! Cardinals Silva and Landázuri, very humbly, had requested to use it as a favour - which I was happy to grant. My cell was a kind of sauna. It is difficult to describe what is to sleep within a oven; it is enough to make somebody very ill. The only window was sealed hermetically. The second day, using all my strength, I broke the seals. Finally oxygen!

Soon, the great day arrived. The first ballot had provided an ample rank of names. In the second one, it had been reduced a little. In the third one, we began to see the light of the dawn and the fourth vote brought the total light of the dawn: John Paul I had been elected. 

Immediately, we all went to embrace the new Pope, while he exclaimed: " God forgives you for what you have done ". This sentence reached the Press who, wrongly, took it as a reproach. Soon we followed the Pope towards the loggia to give his first blessing.

Shortly afterwards , he returned to have supper with us and he had time to chat with everyone.

After dessert, an American Cardinal (n. f. a. it was the Spanish Cardinal Tarancón) asked the new Pope for permission to smoke; something in opposition to protocol. The Pope seemed very solemn; he had us all in suspense, while he thought a little about the matter; finally he said: " Eminence, you may smoke, with one condition: the smoke must be white! " Naturally, there were many laughs.

I hope not to have broken any secret of the conclave ".


Cardinal Leon J. Suenens

Archbishop of Malines - Brussels






Regarding  cigarettes, it is said that Cardinal Tarancón, an impenitent smoker, was worried because in the dining room " there was a lack of smoke ": nobody smoked neither during supper nor after Friday supper, the first evening. Don Vicente wondered if it would be forbidden, but he couldn't remember if such a prohibition was included in any document. So, during breakfast of the following morning, he lit his cigarette with caution, like a minor matter, but looking out of the corner of his eye for the reaction of his colleagues. Within three minutes, several dozens of his companions at the table lit their cigarettes and gave the Cardinal of Madrid a look of gratitude.


What happened inside?

We have the Cardinals' meticulous schedule. Their menus of food; the turns for the early Mass, in three groups of celebrants, under the presidency of the oldest of each group. The ceremonial of the votes, the ballot paper, measures of the three white cassocks ready to dress the elected one with some comfort. Thousand of times, these things were told to the newspapers.

But about the important thing, which really happened during the votes, we do not know anything at all. We, journalists, have spoken about it by making deductions and combining the data available.

The Cardinals have jealously guarded their secrets. And, therefore, our suppositions do not lean on a solid base.

I am going to share my personal experience. I selected carefully the previous data about the conclave and I organized them based on Luciani's name, once elected as Pope. More or less I got a similar process to that which they have spread in the best international weekly. Then, I showed it to a couple of Cardinal friends and asked them what they thought about my hypothesis.


- Interesting, truly interesting.

- Could the Conclave develop like that?

- It could have happened like that. - But ... is it similar to what really happened?

- Not, at all, Jose Maria, it does not similar at all.


So, that's good. (...)

About what happened inside, we know a handful of anecdotes more or less picturesque. The Cardinals had a bad time because of the heat, sometimes, suffocating. And in the Sistine Chapel, unbearable. The 'ferocious' enclosure of the conclave had left the windows practically 'condemned', so there were no air currents. A North American Cardinal tried to defeat the night sweats by force of water: he went to the shower three times in one night, which, beside disturbing the dreams of his neighbours, alarmed them into thinking that someone had been taken ill.


But there was a serious alarm in the Sistine Chapel on having burned the ballots after the morning votes: something happened to the stove tube and it began to emanate, for some reason, puffs of black smoke inside the same chapel. The air was becoming unbreathable; several Cardinals began to cough. Someone managed to open a couple of windows and the environment was clear. The quiet, jocular comment of a Cardinal was heard:


- The smoke of Satan was trying to enter the Conclave.


In order to distract the hunger that we all had of that we were saying the result of the successive votes, going out of their confinement, the Cardinals tell a handful of picturesque episodes. That they were asphyxiated by heat. That the first night, the Cardinal of Chicago (Cody) was dying of sweat and he had to take a shower three times to prevent suffocating. That, when elected, the new Pope wanted to sleep in the same cell as the previous night, and during breakfast he was asked if he had rested well: he said he hadn't, he spent a night of worries and doubts, but he related it as ever, calmly, smiling. Ah, and yesterday evening there was champagne for dinner.

Regarding the champagne, there were some precedents. (...)

The evening of the day in which John XXIII was elected, the new Pope told Monsignor Nasalli (n. f. a. Cardinal Nasalli Rocca di Corneliano - anecdote extracted from the Cardinal's Memories) to remain to have dinner with him.


- No, His Holiness; the custom is that Popes eat alone.

- I understand - answered John XXIII-: that as a Pope you are not going to leave me either to do what I want.

- Holiness, may I bring a bottle of champagne?

- Champagne? Why?

- They have elected a new Pope, haven't they?

- Yes, of course, they have elected a new Pope. Bring the champagne because they have elected a new Pope, not because they have elected me. And you will drink with me; I hope that, at least, this is not forbidden.

- Yes, yes, I will drink, Holiness.

- Good, and, please, don't call me Holiness, because whenever you says it I think you are pulling my leg.


In the portion of anecdotes of the last conclave, the 'fumata' wins the prize. If it was white, if it was black. But smoke comes to go out, so much smoke that meant clearly the end. (...)

I was silly; I spoke with Pironio and I forgot to ask him what happened with the stove. Another Cardinal friend advised me this morning:


- "Ask Pironio what happened; he was trying to repair the stove."


The question remains hanging. Technical personnel had made their tests and they were sure it would be working perfectly, thanks to a device with chemical products that would give black smoke or white smoke, according to Cardinals necessities.

Well, it didn't work.


don José María Javierre

from " From John Paul I to John Paul II "






Then the Cardinals would relate that the beds were really bad; that it was hot; that food wasn't very good; that the coffee of the first days was bad and that it only improved during the last days' breakfast. (...).

On Sunday morning, after a night of insomnia, the Pope met Monsignor Caprio, Substitute of the Secretary of State. And he, jokingly, asked him: " Holiness, Have you rethought it? Are you regretful? " And the smiling Pope answered: " Yes, but it has already no solution ".


don Jesús Infiesta 

from "John Paul I - Joy of the poor "





" After the first votes, the name came out immediately.  Luciani, why not?, so many people said. A good, intelligent and pious person. And the consensus was spread rapidly. We think on him as a new Pius X, also he is Patriarch of Venice, a good and holy Pope. And contemporary decided about the defence of the doctrine. That was necessary after the post- Council disorders". 


Cardinal Silvio Oddi


" After the third scrutiny, I'd have wanted to disappear without attracting attention ". 


John Paul I


" We stood up to applaud, but we did not see him. He was curled up on his chair; he had become little, little; he wanted to hide. It's a pity we cannot tell what we have lived through, because it has been much more beautiful than you can imagine ". 


Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancón

Archbishop of Madrid - Alcalá 


" The conditions imposed by the enclosure to the Cardinals make me think very much: the sealed windows (on August in Rome!), the lack of toilettes and of all the other comforts of our days, the glass painted in white to prevent someone seeing-in from outside ... All this seems to be part of another age and it is offensive for the ' prisoners '. 


Msgr. Jacques Martin

Prefect of the Pontifical House 

from " Beyond the bronze gate "


" We have been witnesses to a real moral miracle ". 


Cardinal Eduardo F. Pironio

Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Religious and Secular Institutes


" I had different opportunities to assist Cardinal Luciani during the conclave that elected him as a Pope. He had a bad cough in the days of the conclave and I remember helping him especially during those nights when he seemed without peace and was unable to sleep. He was imprinted on me as a holy man, a bit delicate but very happy. I liked him because of his simplicity. He was so surprising. He was emerging rightly by virtue of his simplicity ". 


- " Eminence (for Luciani), where is the toilet ? ". - " I don't know". - " But you will know soon because you are going to be the owner of this house ". - " Are you a prophet? ". After the election, John Paul I says: - " You, Eminence, have been a prophet but my Pontificate will be brief ". 


Cardinal Jaime Sin

Archbishop of Manila


Cardinal Jean Guyot, Archbishop of Toulouse, who was close to Luciani during the conclave, with deep emotion, told how, as he was just recovering from a serious illness, he managed to dress himself, and the Patriarch of Venice put in order his dressing-gown and then helped him to put on the liturgical vestments ". 


Jean Chélini 

from " The daily life in the Vatican under John Paul II "



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