The ritual contest to succeed the late pope could be another moment when tradition is tested. In a 1996 document setting out new rules and conditions for papal succession, John Paul conceded that he needed to take into account changing times and present-day requirements.
Still, the document seeks to maintain the traditional wall of secrecy around the selection process and warns of dire consequences for violators.
U.S. cardinals and bishops, including Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, center, prepare for a reception that was held for President Bush at the U.S. Embassy in Rome on Thursday night.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
"I absolutely forbid the introduction into the place of the election, under whatsoever pretext, or the use, should they have been introduced, of technical instruments of any kind for the recording, reproducing or transmitting of sound, visual images or writing," wrote John Paul, who specified the exact wording of the three oaths of secrecy that all cardinals attending the sessions are required to take.
With 3,500 accredited journalists vying for any scrap of inside information, one of the fears of Vatican officials is that the selection process might begin to take on the trappings of an American-style election. Campaigning is strictly forbidden, but that has not stopped some potential contenders -- known as papabili, or men who have the ability to be pope -- from presenting themselves publicly in ways that could gain them support.
Several cardinals greeted mourners as they poured into St. Peter's Basilica to view John Paul's body. Others have given speeches in recent weeks or taken public positions that have brought them media attention -- such as Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's recent call for a boycott of "The Da Vinci Code," an international fiction bestseller.
John-Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University and the author of "Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession," said the succession process remained shrouded in ancient traditions.
"It is still being done very elegantly, in a time-honored way, where candidates are being announced and vetted in a series of subtle signals and rituals that you can understand if you are a denizen of that world, but to ordinary mortals are completely opaque," said Pham.
One example is the series of daily Masses that will be led by prominent cardinals during the nine-day mourning period that begins with the pope's funeral. In the past, the cardinals have often used their eulogies not only to praise the deceased pontiff but to lay out agendas for the church and subtly point toward possible successors.
Another is the closed-door meetings, called General Congregations, in which the cardinals discuss the state of the church leading up to the conclave. As recently as 1978, these sessions were held in Latin, in which all the cardinals were then fluent. Now, they are conducted in Italian, with a lot of Spanish and English spoken on the side.
A similarly small but telling alteration is that once a new pope is chosen, not only will the traditional white smoke rise from the Sistine Chapel, but bells will ring. "This way even journalists will know," said Archbishop Piero Marini, the master of papal liturgical ceremonies, with no apparent irony.
At times church officials appear to have a love-hate relationship with modernity. On Wednesday, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington decried the spiritual damage "caused by the television world we live in, which presents heaven as being as rich as you can be, as powerful as you can be, as beautiful as you can be, as skinny as you can be -- all those things -- and not as kind as you can be, as courageous as you can be, as generous as you can be."
McCarrick was speaking to four television crews at the time.
Catholicism is a faith that places great emphasis on tradition -- what the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton called "the democracy of the dead."
But Leslie Woodcock Tentler, a professor of history at Catholic University in Washington, said the notion that the church never changes was false. In many cases, she said, the church has simply abandoned obsolete positions rather than explicitly overturning them.
"Things do change, and I think they often change by just ceasing to talk about them," Tentler said.