VATICAN CITY -- Cardinal William H. O'Connell of Boston had made it across the Atlantic and was on his way from Naples to Rome when he got the news: The papal conclave of 1914 had begun and ended, and O'Connell was too late to vote.
Just eight years later, the same thing happened: This time, O'Connell was at his winter home in the Bahamas when the pope died, and again he arrived in Rome only to discover that a new pope had already been chosen.
O'Connell's poor timing changed history, leading Pope Pius XI to require a minimum interregnum of 15 days between the death of a pope and the start of a conclave to elect a successor -- a period that ends tomorrow with the start of the conclave to elect the 265th pope in the history of the Catholic Church.
The conclave is one of the most secretive and elaborate procedures of the church, informed by history but shaped by modernity. The cardinals still meet in the Sistine Chapel and disguise their handwriting as they mark their preferences on small pieces of paper. They burn the ballots to generate black smoke if no one has won a two-thirds majority, and white smoke if a pope is elected.
But this will be the first conclave at which the cardinals will have modern lodgings; this afternoon, they are scheduled to move into the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a new Vatican residence with 106 suites and 22 single rooms, marking a dramatic upgrade from the makeshift cubicles with shared toilets constructed in the hallways of the apostolic palace for previous conclaves.
The cardinals' vows of secrecy will be guaranteed by the prohibition of any cellphones, BlackBerries, and laptops, and an electronic sweep of the Sistine Chapel for bugs. And, in an innovation put forward by the media-savvy Pope John Paul II, the white smoke will be accompanied by the ringing of the bells of St. Peter's Basilica, because at the last conclave the white smoke appeared to be gray.
''The dynamic has changed tremendously because of the media," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. Reese is traveling around Rome with a cellphone provided by CNN so that the cable network can summon him whenever on-air commentary is needed. He said one unresolved question is how long this conclave will last.
''On the one hand, a lot of these cardinals don't know each other, which could encourage a conclave that would last a while," Reese said. ''But the media is outside, and if they go more than three or four days, the story is going to be 'The church in crisis' and 'The cardinals divided.' So I think they've got to get this election over with."
Many past conclaves have been characterized by intrigue and bitterness. Most spectacularly, after the death of Clement IV in 1268, the cardinals of the church took nearly three years to choose a new pope; the election dragged on so long that the local authorities removed the roof of the papal palace in Viterbo, north of Rome, where the cardinals were meeting, and threatened to cut off their access to food in a successful effort to force a resolution to the debate.
But the conclaves of the 20th century were all relatively brief, and many observers expect this first conclave of the 21st century to follow suit. The last time a conclave lasted more than five days was in 1831; in 1978, the conclave to elect John Paul I took two days, and, after he died a month later, the conclave to elect John Paul II lasted three days.
''[The cardinals] want a conclave that is neither too short nor too long," said John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''If it's just a day, it could look like a rush to judgment, but if it's too long, they risk looking divided. They do not want this to look like a smoke-filled-room political exercise, but like a Holy Spirit-infused consensus."
Several factors argue in favor of a speedy conclave -- not only the external pressure, but also the fact that the cardinals have had two weeks since the April 2 death of John Paul II to size up one another. They agreed April 9 to stop speaking to the news media in an effort to pursue what the Vatican described as ''a more intense period of silence and prayer, in view of the conclave." Yesterday, the cardinals met for the 12th and final time for what Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described as ''an exchange of ideas on the problems of the church and the world." They also watched the ritual destruction of John Paul II's fisherman's ring and lead seal, the signs of his papacy, and concelebrated the last of nine nightly Masses for the late pope.
Navarro-Valls said the names of potential popes were not discussed at the daily meetings. But the cardinals have had time for such discussions informally; since the pope's funeral April 8, the 11 voting American cardinals moved into the North American College, a residence for seminarians, so they could compare notes before the conclave. Tonight, the 115 cardinal-electors are to have dinner at the Domus Sanctae Marthae.
Other factors could make it a longer conclave: Because about half of the cardinals were appointed within the past five years, and they live in 52 countries on five continents, some do not know one another. Another potential source of delay is a change put in place by John Paul II allowing the cardinals to elect a pope by simple majority, or by a runoff between the top two vote-getters if there is a lengthy deadlock. Observers say the change could lead to a strategic delay by supporters of a candidate who might garner a majority but not a supermajority of votes.
And the comfortable lodgings, combined with a decision to allow the cardinals to walk about a portion of the Vatican grounds during the conclave, mean physical discomfort will not be a factor.
''This conclave is certainly going to be different from two in recent memory, because in two conclaves of the 20th century there was a clear front-runner, and when the new pope was announced it wasn't much of a surprise," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, referring to the conclaves of 1939 and 1963. ''This will also be the largest conclave in history, and with the largest percentage of non-Italian and non-European cardinals voting, which is the only reason why there is serious talk of a Latin American pope."
In the early church, the bishop of Rome was elected by the clergy and laity of Rome; as the church grew, and the bishop of Rome became more clearly regarded as the leader of the entire church, the election was carried out by an increasingly select group of people. The decision was delegated to cardinals in the 11th century.
''Until 1878, the possibility of espionage, bribes, and political influence was constant, and three or four Catholic kings had the right of veto that they could use once in every conclave," said James M. Weiss, an associate professor of theology at Boston College. ''The conclaves would go on for anywhere from a month to six months because it took that long for the really powerful cardinals from Spain and France to arrive, and the cardinals in Italy did not dare elect a pope without input from the French and Spanish monarchs."
As late as 1903, according to historians, civil governments shaped the outcome of a conclave; in that year, the Austrian emperor vetoed the election of a Vatican official as the next pope because of a dispute over Italy's sovereignty over Sicily.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.