Home > Archives > 07 - 2003 > The time the emperor’s veto helped the election of a saintly pope
from issue no. 07 - 2003

The time the emperor’s veto helped the election of a saintly pope

A hundred years ago, on 4 August, Giuseppe Sarto was elected pope with the title Pius X. Not least thanks to the veto that Franz Josef, the emperor of Austria, put on the Sicilian Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro

by Andrea Tornielli

Franz Josef, the emperor of Austria

Franz Josef, the emperor of Austria

A hundred years have passed since the conclave in August 1903 elected Cardinal Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto as pope. The last pontiff to have been proclaimed saint, a great pastor pope who gave small children the possibility of going to first communion. From the following episode, that goes back to the time he was bishop of Mantua, the great inner freedom of Pope Sarto emerges. One day, walking through the city with the rector of the seminary, he found himself in front of the Jewish cemetery. He asked his companion whether he recited the De profundis for those dead. The monsignor answered no. At which Bishop Sarto took off his hat and recited the whole psalm, and then said to the young priest: «You see, now we’ve done our part. The Lord will do his. Because it’s not said that the Lord’s theology is that taught by the Jesuits Fathers at the Gregorian University».

“Political” pope
or “pastor” Pope
When Leo XIII died at the age of ninety-three after a reign that lasted a quarter of a century, he did not leave an untroubled inheritance. Many cardinals wanted a shift towards the “pastoral”, a pope who was neither a “politician” nor a “diplomat”. The high-profile candidate was instead a man who embodied the other line, that of direct continuity with Leo XIII. He was an aristocratic and pious Sicilian, Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, up to then Secretary of State. His election was backed by most of the French cardinals, but he was opposed by Austria because of his policy in support of the aspirations of the Slavs who were causing unrest in the Balkans. The Austrian emperor decided to make use of an ancient right of veto, granted to the great Catholic monarchies, to block the election of Rampolla.
The bishop of Krakow Jan Puzyna de Kozielsko, a precursor of Karol Wojtyla, was informed of the veto. According to some, the move came from Cardinal Puzyna himself, who push it forward with the then elderly and wavering Franz Josef. Informed of the “ban”, the Austro-Hungarian cardinals decided on two names: Cardinals Serafino Vannutelli and Girolamo Maria Gotti, the latter of whom was the Carmelite Prefect of Propaganda Fide. There were some cardinals, among them the Archbishop of Milan Andrea Carlo Ferrari, who wanted a candidate with a decidedly pastoral bent. And they picked on Sarto, the Patriarch of Venice, as the ideal. His name however didn’t come up in the early forecasts. But it’s interesting to note that in the newspapers, already before the beginning of the conclave, the candidacy of Rampolla del Tindaro was given as a dead certainty. On the evening of 31 July sixty-two cardinals entered the seclusion of the conclave.

The insistence
of Cardinal Ferrari
On the morning of 1 August the polling began, two counts a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. To be elected a two-thirds majority was needed, that is 42 votes. On the first poll, Rampolla gained 24 votes, Gotti 12, Sarto 5, Vannutelli 4. In the afternoon Rampolla moved up to 29 and Sarto to 10, while Gotti made 16. When examined the situation did not look good for Rampolla: of the 38 electors who in the morning had voted for other candidates, only 5 had decided to give him their backing. The conclave looked hung even before the famous veto was announced. The Patriarch of Venice, having climbed to 10 votes, noted: «Volunt iocari supra nomen meum», they want to have fun with my name. He didn’t believe he was a real candidate.
On the morning of 2 August, after first informing Rampolla, Puzyna read out the text of the “ban” in Latin, asking the Chamberlain “to learn for his own information and to notify and declare in unofficial fashion, in the name and with the authority of his Apostolic Majesty Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, that, His Majesty wishing to make use of an ancient law and privilege, pronounced the veto of exclusion against the most eminent Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro». More that a veto, it seems the expression of a desire, avowed “in unofficial fashion”. Immediately after, both the Chamberlain and Rampolla himself protested. Everyone associated themselves, declaring the interference absurd and out of place. Nevertheless, that morning, in the polling, the former Secretary of State of Leo XIII didn’t get a vote to add to the 29 of the evening before. Sarto, instead, went up to 21, while Gotti’s candidacy waned, coming down to 9. It was an evident sign of the split in the conclave.
Pius  X

Pius X

In the afternoon, the French cardinals, irritated by Rampolla’s defeat, decided to make a protest against the veto. It was an attempt to gather votes for the former Secretary of State. Immediately afterward Cardinal Sarto spoke out: «It’s certain I shall never accept the papacy, for which I feel unworthy. I ask the most eminent [cardinals] to forget my name». In the following poll Rampolla went up by just one vote, Sarto went from 21 to 24, Gotti came down to 3.
Given the hung position Cardinal Ferrari tried to persuade Sarto, who however resisted: «I feel unequal to the burden. It’s impossible for me to take on… I shall have my first enemies among the nearest; I know well the very people supporting me, they can’t be well-meaning…». Ferrari insisted: « A refusal could cost you very dear and be painful for the rest of your life… Think of the responsibility and of the harm that would come to Holy Church either from an election that would be loathed in Italy and outside, or from such a prolongation of the conclave that one cannot say (and all agree) whether it will be of days, of weeks or even of months».

The humility of the Patriarch
Cardinal Ferrari returned to the charge, in vain, on the morning of 3 August 1903. In the first poll, Sarto went up to 27 votes, while Rampolla begin to come down and got only 24. The Patriarch of Venice once again asked to speak: «I insist that you forget my name. Before my conscience and before God I cannot accept your votes». Words like a cold shower for his supporters, who didn’t intend to elect him only to hear him then refuse. Meanwhile the French cardinals suggested to Rampolla the possibility of shifting his votes onto another candidate suitable to him. But the former Secretary of State resisted: «The freedom of the Sacred College,» he said, «and freedom in choosing the pope, must be supported and defended. I therefore consider it my duty not to withdraw from the struggle». In reality the Austrian veto, in this case, seems to have been almost an excuse for Rampolla to hold on stubbornly in the face of a stalemate, obvious already before the imperial pronouncement, rather than a decisive impediment to his election.
The intervention of Cardinal Francesco Satolli was decisive in those hours. Meeting Sarto as he came out of his cell, he reproached him: «Your Eminence means to resist the wish of God so openly manifested by the Sacred College…». Sarto finally gave in. He lifted his hands in surrender and said: «God’s will be done». The news went immediately from mouth to mouth in the conclave. In the afternoon poll the Patriarch of Venice went up to 35 votes, Rampolla came down to 16.
The American cardinal James Gibbons was to note: «At every poll in which he saw the votes grow in his favor, Cardinal Sarto spoke out to beg the Sacred College to desist from the idea of electing him: his voice trembled every time, his face burned, and tears flowed from his eyes. He tried each time to document more minutely than before the requisites for the papacy he seemed to himself to lack. And instead, would you believe it? It was those speeches, so full of humility and wisdom, that made his entreaties ever more futile».

«I shall call myself Pius»
On the morning of the following day the French cardinals, irritated by Rampolla’s resistance, passed to Sarto who, thanks also to them, obtained 50 votes (42 were required), Rampolla 10, Gotti 2. The elected pope replied to the ritual question: «Quoniam calix non potest transire, fiat voluntas Dei [Since the chalice cannot pass away, let God’s will be done]. Trusting in the divine protection of the holy apostles Peter and Paul and the saintly pontiffs called by the name of Pius, above all those who fought strenuously in the last century against the sects and the tide of errors, I assume the name of Pius X».

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português