James Cardinal Gibbons of the Archdiocese of Baltimore was the second American cardinal and an enormously important figure both within the history of the Church in America and the history of America in general. His championing of the rights of labor in the nineteenth century helped direct America on a more peaceful path in the relationship between labor and capital than existed in many other nations. Many posts could be written about this man and I intend to write them! Today we will focus on the fact that he was the first American cardinal to participate in a papal conclave.
When Pope Leo XIII died in 1903 Cardinal Gibbons happened to be in Rome. Without that fortuitous circumstance he would most likely have not been able to participate in the subsequent Conclave. In 1914 with the death of Pope Pius X, Cardinal Gibbons boarded a rapid steamer to cross the Atlantic but arrived too late to participate in the Conclave. Thus the Conclave of 1903 was the only one Cardinal Gibbons was fated to participate in, but it certainly was a dramatic one.
The first Conclave to occur within the glare of modern media, the proceedings leaked like a sieve to eager waiting journalists, so much so that after this Conclave Pope Pius decreed that participants were to take an oath of silence as to the proceedings of all future conclaves.
The front runner was Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, Leo XIII’s Secretary of State. He would almost certainly have been chosen Pope by the Conclave but for the exercise of the Austrian veto by a Polish Cardinal at the behest of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. (Three Catholic powers had traditionally claimed a right of vetoes in conclaves: the King of France, the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. Contemporary Catholics who sigh for Catholic confessional states are often bone ignorant as to how much traditional Catholic confessional states interfered in the operation of the Church.) Why the veto was used remains a mystery. The Cardinals met the use of the veto with outrage, but its use stopped Rampolla as a viable candidate. After the election of Pope Pius, he banned the use of vetoes in any future conclaves.
After five days and seven ballots, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, a man of humble birth who had risen to be Patriarch of Venice, was chosen Pope, and decided to reign as Pius. Although the Holy Spirit chose a most convoluted path in the Conclave of 1903, the choice of Pope Pius X was a great one. He would be a masterful Pope, immensely popular with the average Catholic. Fond of children he had a wry sense of humor. When Roman aristocrats complained that he had not made his sisters Papal countesses he responded that he had made them the sisters of a pope and he didn’t see how he could improve on that! His piety, his wisdom and his leadership assured that he would become the first pope canonized since the seventeenth century, almost by popular acclaim, modernists, of course, excepted. Cardinal Gibbons and the other participants in the Conclave could be proud of their work.