The Election of Pope John XIII: A student's account

Sunday 3 June, marks the 49th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, the architect of the Second Vatican Council.  His election on 28 October 1958 came as a surprise to many.  In St Peter’s Square that evening was a 19 year old student from Morecambe studying at the English College for Ordination to the Priesthood for the Diocese of Lancaster, Patrick Kelly.  Four days later he wrote to Lancaster priest Father Michael Kirkham giving his account of a night that was to change the Church:

‘It has been, as you can well imagine, a very exciting week; when the Conclave began the students favoured Agagianian, and from rumours of receptions given him by the crowd, it seems as if he was their choice as well.

‘Sunday was the Ordination day and with staying until the end, I missed the first signal from the Vatican which came at 11.55.  Aparently it started white then slowly but surely lost its purity, to end as black as pitch.

‘There was a huge crowd on Sunday evening, larger than any I have ever seen there before even on Easter Sunday.  This was the night of chaos.  At about five to six the first few puffs were picked up by the powerful spotlight trained on to the gable end of the Sistine and the chimney.  Soon white smoke was billowing out so that the Italian and even Vatican radio announced an election; but as we watched, it lost it’s colour and we returned to the College.  Before Monday Prince Chigi, steward of the Conclave sent a message to ask for more definite signals in future.

‘Monday morning saw an early message which I missed; a very definite black at 11.10.  The evening crowd was again big but smaller than Sunday’s and this time at 5.40 there was more black smoke.

‘The University did not see fit to cancel the last two lectures on Tuesday so most of us only heard of more air pollution which had occurred at 11.10.  It seemed to hint that things were speeding up yet in which direction, solution or deadlock, was strongly disputed.

‘Tuesday evening’s crowd was perhaps the smallest of all: the smoke was the earliest; at five past five there was a small train of very doubtful smoke and we waited for the usual thick clouds to follow.  All that came was another equally doubtful trickle; and yet nobody turned to go; we had heard that the quantity was as good a sign as the colour, and a small quantity meant yes.  I turned my back on St Peter’s to say that if it were white, the light in the loggia would go on and Tony Philpot quietly replied, “The light has just gone on”.  At this the whole crowd seemed to move forward.  It was about 5.10.  Searchlights were soon playing on the facade while on a balcony high up in the Vatican a group formed to give me the reassurement I needed as time went on.  “They at least will know,” I thought.  Eventually a contingent of Italian forces who had been lingering nearby during the election, marched in complete with a band to stand at the foot of the steps.

‘At last at five to six the doors behind the central balcony were opened.  Cardinal Canali and an escort of monsignori came out and after some whispered conversation, which the microphones picked up, for an amused crowd, the Cardinal, to the sound of nothing but the splash of the fountains, although by now the square was full began the tremendous announcement.

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnumHabemus Papam.  Reverendissimum et Eminentissimum Dominum, Dominum Angelo Giuseppe, Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Roncalli, Qui sibi nomen imposuit Joannem XXIII.”

‘After the Christian names there was a cheer from one section of the crowd, perhaps the Lateran College where he was once a student.  But it needed the surname to bring the whole crowd into action while the name which followed caused great delight.

‘The Cardinal went back inside and the doors were closed.  They soon opened again but only for the attendants to hang the late Pope’s arms over the balcony.  They were reclosed and then the blinds were removed from all the loggia windows.  At about 6.10 the windows of the balconies were opened and on to the side ones came the Cardinals who, I am very pleased to say, were cheered as the last group appeared; the crowd appreciated their work.

‘Finally the central balcony began to fill and last of all His Holiness Pope John XXIII came out to receive a tremendous reception.  It was a wonderful sight; each balcony full with the leaders of the Church all gathered together with their Supreme Pontiff in the centre.  His Holiness gave the indulgence and His Blessing to the silent kneeling crowd and then returned inside.

‘Now we are waiting to see if there are any changes imminent.  According to Mgr Heard who is very pleased. He knows what he wants and he’ll get it.  Perhaps the Coronation is an example of this; it is starting at 8.30, I think.

‘So much for our new Holy Father.  Today here in the College there is coffee and liqueurs, some extra dinner as well, I suppose.  But perhaps the nuns are saving up for Tuesday, Coronation Day.’


Yours sincerely,


Patrick A.Kelly