American participation in conclaves is still relatively new in Church history. The first American cardinal was named in 1875, John McCloskey of New York. He had the opportunity to be the first American to vote in a conclave three years later after the death of Pope Blessed Pius IX. Cardinal McCloskey’s ship arrived too late for him to enter the conclave, however, so the honor of being first fell to Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, who voted in the 1903 conclave that elected Pope St. Pius X.
Reaching Rome in time to enter the Sistine Chapel proved a challenge for the non-European cardinals in the early 20th century. And so, when several cardinals, including Americans Denis Dougherty of Philadelphia and William O’Connell of Boston, arrived too late again to join the conclave in 1922, the newly elected Pope Pius XI extended the time period between the death of a pope and the start of the election.
The Vatican raised the possibility Saturday that the conclave to elect the next pope might start sooner than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules that require a 15 to 20 day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that Vatican rules on papal succession are open to interpretation and that “this is a question that people are discussing.” Any change to the law itself would have to be approved by the pope before he resigns.