As we look forward to the coming conclave, it’s natural to ask, “How long will it last?”
Nobody knows at this point, but it’s possible to get a sense by looking at history.
Here are some surprising things you may not have known.
Birth of the Conclave
In the history of the papacy there have been periods in which the chair of St. Peter was vacant for startlingly long periods of time, at least by modern standards.
The longest of these occurred after the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268.
After he died on November 29th of that year, there was no new pope until September 1 of 1271, when Gregory X became pope.
That’s a gap of almost three years (and just over 1,000 days).
This happened because the cardinals were deadlocked and could not agree on a new pope.
To pressure them into coming to a conclusion, the magistrates of Viterbo (where they were meeting) locked them up, reduced their rations to bread and water, and tore the roof off the palazzo where they were housed, to expose them to the elements.
Even so, it took a year after that!
When it was all over, Gregory X introduced a new law, based on what had happened, which essentially called for the modern conclave system, where the cardinals are sequestered until they get the job done.
It took a while for the conclave to stick, but this is where it started.
The Last 500 Years
Here’s a chart of how many days all of the papal elections have taken since October 1503–more than 500 years!
As you can see, the length is all over the place before we get to a certain point.
The very first entry (at the far left) is the election of Julius II in October 1503, which was the shortest papal election on record, taking only a few hours.
Then it spikes up and down, reaching the highest peak in 1740, with the election of Benedict XIV, which took a whopping 183 days!
And then, after the election of Gregory XVI in 1831, something changes.
The length of conclaves becomes much shorter and consistently falls within a narrow range.
The cardinals now have their act together.
Let’s take a closer look at that . . .