Eclipse of the Church at the 1958 Conclave


H. Spigornell



At 5:55 p.m. on October 26, 1958, thousands upon thousands of excited pilgrims who had crowded into St. Peter’s square saw at last what they had been waiting for: thick white smoke billowing from a small chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. “Bianco!  Bianco!” they roared.  As this went on for a full five minutes, the cries increased. “Habemus papam!”  Amidst the cheers, a newscaster for Vatican Radio cried out exultantly, “A new Pope has been elected!”


Soon, he continued, the cardinal deacon would appear on the balcony above the square to announce the pontiff’s name.  Addressing not just a local, but a worldwide audience as well, the newscaster went on to say that cardinals inside the conclave were surely at that very moment going through the traditional acts of obeisance in recognition of a new pontiff!


Formally dressed lay officials, waiting outside the conclave, hurried to their assigned posts for the ceremony to follow: these included Callori di Vignale, governor of the conclave and Prince Sigismondo Chigi, Marshal of the Conclave.  Called from their barracks, the Palatine Guard rushed to St. Peter’s. 


The Swiss Guard, too, was summoned.   


Then, however, to the surprise of all, the thin line of white smoke rising skyward seemed to turn gray, then black—but only for a moment. An imposing cloud of white appeared, and a gust of wind carried it across the pediment, prompting onlookers to cry, “Evviva il Papa!”  Encouraged by this sign, the Vatican Radio newscaster said he was convinced.  The abundance and duration of the white smoke left no room for doubt, he insisted: “The Pope has been elected!”


The mass rejoicing continued for some minutes, until—alas! The crowd of onlookers saw the wind proceed to scatter the smoke so that now only a trace remained, and that was black!  Still the announcer persisted in thinking this had to be some kind of fluke.  From the clatter of telephones and sounds of broadcasters chattering over their radios, however, it was evident that he was not the only one there who felt that way. The minutes ticked on, and it was a good half hour before he and other press and radio men finally resigned themselves to the sad state of affairs.




It had all happened so fast, so quietly, without flash or fanfare, that neither he nor anyone else witnessing the event had the time to contemplate the meaning behind it.  While they watched helplessly, the smoke had turned from ethereal white to somber gray, or black, mirroring their falling spirits and expectations.  In the memorable words of Joseph Breig, journalist and eye witness to the event, the change in color had occurred “as darkness came over the Vatican.”


Little did he know how true his words would prove to be—in more ways than one.  For, unbeknownst to him, although, as the smoke changed, night was indeed falling over Vatican City (and several of the floodlights on the roof of the Sistine Chapel were apparently out), there was also a deeper, intangible darkness prevailing that did not come as the result of any natural occurrence.  It was not just the dark of an ordinary night, but, rather, one resulting from a strange sort of fraud, or cover up, comprising a kind of eclipse.  It was, in fact, an eclipse caused by purveyors of illusion who had finally managed to block the powers of light.


After conspiring for centuries, they had at last succeeded. . .


The next morning, news of the supposed mix-up made headlines in papers throughout the world.  The Associated Press gave a full account of the event, including details regarding the confusion that had prevailed as onlookers watched at least half an hour for a new pope to appear on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square and give his benediction.  Even the press waited—and waited.  Long after the smoke had darkened there were doubts as to what it was supposed to be: black or white?


In an interview with a reporter for Corriere della Serra, Prince Chigi, Marshal of the Conclave, admitted, “Not even I, who have assisted at three Conclaves, even at four, have seen smoke of colors so varied and suspect as at this time.”


  We all know what happened next: the evening of October 28, Angelo Roncalli appeared on the papal balcony in his new guise as John XXIII—a name that raised the eyebrows of canny Catholics worldwide, since it had previously been held by an antipope!  Also strange was the unprecedented move on Roncalli’s part of extending the conclave another 16 hours—until the next morning!  Because the rules say this event ends after the cardinals pay a second round of obeisances to the new pope, many of those inside—nuns, priests, lay attendants—not having heard of the extension, had already left to witness the new pope’s first public blessing from the outside.


Hearing about this, “Good Pope John” pronounced them immediately all “excommunicated”!  Upon seeing their horrified looks, however, he reneged, and lifted the penalty. 


Nice guy, eh?


When, coming from outside the conclave, Archbishop Tardini, acting secretary of state, burst in to greet the new pope, along with some other officials, however, he was treated more strictly.  The camerlengo, Cardinal Tisserant, excommunicated him, and his companions, on the spot, and Pope John did not reverse this ruling until the next day. ( All these details, by the way, are recorded by Father Paul Perrotta  in his book Pope John XXIII; His Life and Character, as cited by Gary Giuffre in an unpublished article on the October, 1958, events.)


Whatever transpired during those ensuing hours of the elongated conclave only added to the aura of secrecy shrouding the event.  Measures were surely taken to make sure the facts behind the smoke signals of October 26 did not leak to the outside.  Nevertheless, Italians, at least, did wonder about this, despite all the inane excuses fed to the press, one being that “the same thing had happened in 1939.”


Oh really?


Those in the know did not fall for that line at the time, and, after many years, their public vindication has finally come in the form of MSNBC and CBS News items, now circulating the internet, that discuss the topic of smoke signals in the context of the most recent conclave.  Both of these stories note that there was “little record of color confusion until the 1958 conclave.”


Note that there is absolutely no mention of 1939! 


Just prior to the election this past April, the mass media broadcast the news that, for the sake of clarity, John Paul II had ordered bells to be rung in accompaniment to the smoke signals at future conclaves.  In addition, the CBS item mentioned above says “special chemicals would be added” to the straw to be burned “to help avoid confusion.”  Furthermore, in at least one other conclave subsequent to 1958, smoke bombs were apparently used to produce black smoke!  Nevertheless, despite these extra measures, the current CBS item would have us believe that there was the same kind of confusion in 2005 that there was in 1958!


For proof, they cite the illuminating testimony of several onlookers in St. Peter’s square for the big election this past April.  These included 21-year-old Amy Turnipseed (yep, that’s right) who, seeing smoke issuing from the pipe over the Sistine Chapel, said, “It looks really white, but I’m not sure.” 


Would you believe?  I mean, it’s almost as if some wise guys in the news media know about our interest in the ’58 conclave and are using an embellished version of the 2005 confab to generate a new, up-to-date kind of smoke screen to cover events past as well as present!  How clever of them!  But. . .  Do you suppose they really expect those of us who are clued in to what happened in ’58 to equate the words, however titillating, of Amy Turnipseed and friends with those of Silvio Negro?


That’s what it looks like.


But we’re not fooled, anymore than those wily Italianos were back in ’58, even if we are not just dumb Americans, but the dumbest of the lot,  American Catholics, accustomed to being lied to and cheated ad nauseam (Isn’t that what being an American Catholic means?).  According to an unpublished book by veteran journalist Gabriella Montemayor, the question that spread throughout the Italian peninsula back then in ’58 was: who was elected that day of the mixed smoke signals? 


Everyone in Genoa, she writes in her book, I’ll Tell My Cat, insisted it had to have been their own Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, the favorite of Pius XII, the one he had wanted to succeed him.  “Could he have abdicated?  Had he been forced out?” she asks.  “Was it politics or the Holy Ghost?”  While what happened at the conclave remained a mystery to her and her friends, they could discern the contrast between the current occupant of the papal throne and his predecessor.


By their fruits shall ye know them. . .  


Pius XII had excommunicated those who collaborated in any way with Communists; not so “Good Pope John.”  No, after  scaring the wits out of  the poor suckers who had dared stray, ever so innocently, from his elongated conclave, he proceeded in the days and years that followed to embrace scores of reds, pinkos—atheists of every hue and stripe.  Even as persecution raged behind the iron curtain, he opened his flabby arms to the Soviet thugs and their pimps abroad.  It’s hardly surprising that his radical new policies—unheard of for any true pope––won rave revues from Freemasons throughout the world.

To be continued…

Copyright 2006 by Judith Gordon.


This is a revision of the original article.

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