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August 1978: the summer that changed the history of conclaves

2013-08-18

With temperatures high up in the thermometer, August in Rome can be very unpleasant. Because of that its earned its nickname, ferragosto, due to the intense heat that sets in. And precisely 35 years ago, cardinals had to endure one of the most intense summers the Church has gone through in recent memory.   

They had not one, but two conclaves, about a month apart. The first elected John Paul I, while the second chose John Paul II. Casa Santa Marta did not yet exist, and so the cardinals experience some unique struggles. 

PALOMA GOMEZ BORRERO 
Journalist 
"Some of them stayed in a small room, and so they at least had a bathroom. But others had to use basins and pitchers. And, of course, they were locked in. To be inside with this Roman heat, this humidity... well it must have been torture.” 

Their rooms were not very comfortable, and there are hundreds of stories about the cardinals' experience in those days.  

PALOMA GOMEZ BORRERO 
Journalist 
"There are stories like Belgian Cardinal Suenens, who had nothing more than a basin and a pitcher with water, and he approached one of the other cardinals saying, 'Your Eminence, for the love of God, let me bathe here since you have a tub and I don't.'” 

Soon after the conclaves, it was John Paul II who decided to do away with those struggles by having the Casa Santa Marta built. He also wrote the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, addressing lodging for the conclaves. The document also set in stone the election process for new Popes. 

ANGELA AMBROGETTI 
Vatican Insider 
"They did away with the option to elect by acclamation, which was a sort of compromise. They would all stand and say who their candidate for Pope was, as a compromise. It was an old way to carry out the conclave. So all that remains now is the scrutiny system with the two thirds majority vote.” 

Despite all the struggles the cardinals went through in 1978, they helped shape the way that this past conclave, and all the ones in the future, will take place. 


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