Two days is fast. But in AD 236, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church was selected by a dove.
St. Fabian wasn't thought to be a favorite when he stopped by Rome and visited the crowd selecting the next head of the church, according to the historian Eusebius' account of the gathering.
But lo, according to Eusebius, a dove landed on Fabian's head: "Thereupon the people, all as if impelled by one divine spirit, with one united and eager voice cried out that he was worthy and immediately they took and set him upon the episcopal seat."
Times, of course, have changed. The selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, of Argentina to become the 266th pope came less dramatically -- if a secret vote inside the Sistine Chapel, while a throng in St. Peter's Square prayed for white-colored smoke to come from a chimney, can be considered more prosaic.
Conclave rules have changed since the days of Fabian, when the leader of a nascent faith was selected by the Roman Christian community rather than by the church elite. For centuries now, a two-thirds vote by attending cardinals from all over the world has determined who will become pontiff.
This week, 115 cardinals cast five ballots before crossing the required threshold Wednesday, deciding on a leader for the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
"The speed of the selection -- only a few hours longer than it took the last conclave to choose Benedict in 2005 -- showed that the cardinals quickly coalesced behind a candidate despite reports of increasing divisions among the cardinals making the choice," The Times' Henry Chu reported from Vatican City.
If Pope Benedict XVI's resignation came as a shock -- he was the first pope to resign in about 600 years -- the ensuing deliberations continued a pattern of relative swiftness in selecting a successor.
During the last 10 papal conclaves, which stretch back to 1903, no selection has lasted longer than five days; in the last 50 years, no selection has lasted longer than three days.
Benedict XVI, who ran the proceedings of the last conclave, needed only four ballots to secure the papacy. By contrast, John Paul II became the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years after eight ballots in 1978.
The most contested vote in the last century came with the selection of Pius XI, who needed five days and 14 votes to become pontiff in 1922.
Papal conclaves have occurred less frequently since 1900 because lifespans have increased and popes' average terms are longer than a decade.
Past conclaves could also be much more protracted than their modern brethren: In the 16th century, for instance, several conclaves lasted three days or less, but four conclaves took more than 18 days.
It took 111 days to select Pius IV in 1559, and 72 days to select Julius III in the conclave that began in 1549.
"The primary change is the absence of influence of the Catholic rulers of France, Spain," said Fred Baumgartner, professor of history at Virginia Tech. "They used to have their cardinals -- Italians for the most part -- who were their supporters, and they would hold out for a cardinal that they supported or who was at least a friend to their king."
That division slowed down the selection process until deliberators could agree on an agreeable candidate. Outside political influence has waned since the decline of royalism in Europe and the rise of secular governance, Baumgartner said.
And much as the Internet and air travel have sped up life for much of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, cardinals across the globe are now more likely to arrive sooner and be more familiar with their brethren inside the conclave -- likely contributing to more predictable deliberations, Baumgartner said.
"In the 1600 and 1700s, they would wait until the cardinals from France, Austria showed up, give or take a couple weeks," Baumgartner said. "They were never in a big hurry because they knew a decision wouldn’t be made until they arrived."
He added, "It’s much easier for them now to arrive, and the cardinals do know each other better than in the past."