VATICAN CITY — This time there was no doubt. There was no new pope yet, and the mystery of who — and when — was as thick as the unmistakable heavy black smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel chimney.
As thousands waited in a cold night rain in St. Peter's Square, the cardinals signaled Tuesday they had failed on their first attempt to find a leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and their troubled church.
“It's black, it's black, it's waaay black!” screamed Eliza Nagle, a 21-year-old Notre Dame theology major on an exchange program in Rome, as the smoke poured from the 6-foot-high copper chimney at 7:41 p.m.
“They definitely got the color right this time,” agreed Father Andrew Gawrych, an American priest based in Rome, referring to the confusion over the smoke during the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
That was thanks to special smoke flares — akin to those used in soccer matches or protests — lit in the chapel ovens to make the burned ballots black, the sign that cardinals must come back for another day of voting Wednesday.
Tuesday's drama unfolded against the backdrop of the turmoil unleashed by Benedict's surprise resignation and the exposure of deep divisions among cardinals grappling with whether they need a manager to clean up the Vatican's dysfunctional bureaucracy or a pastor who can inspire Catholics at a time of waning faith and growing secularism.
Surrounded by Michelangelo's imposing frescoes portraying the beginning and the end of the world, cardinals locked themselves into the Sistine Chapel following a final appeal for unity by their dean and set about the business of electing the 266th pope.
The 115 scarlet-robed prelates chanted the Litany of Saints, the sounds of the Gregorian chant echoing through the soaring hall as, walking two-by-two, they implored the saints to guide their voting. They then took an oath of secrecy, first collectively and then individually, as each placed his right hand on the gospel and intoned the words in Latin accented by their native languages — English, German, French, Italian, Arabic and so on.
Then the master of liturgical ceremonies intoned the words “Extra omnes” — “everyone out” — and dozens of prelates and Vatican officials departed as the chapel's heavy, ornately carved wooden doors swung shut.
The cardinals then proceeded with the carefully choreographed vote, each writing his choice on a piece of paper, then folding it and tipping it into an urn, to be counted by hand by three “scrutineers” who read out the results, one by one.
With no cardinal winning the required 77 votes on the first ballot, the cardinals returned to the Vatican hotel for a simple dinner of pasta with tomato sauce, soup and vegetables before another day of voting Wednesday.
Benedict's surprise resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed deep divisions between Vatican-based cardinals and those in the field who have complained about Rome's inefficiencies and indifference to their needs.
The leading contenders for pope have fallen into two camps, with Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, seen as favored by those hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer favored by Vatican-based insiders who have defended the status quo.
Other names include Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who heads the Vatican's powerful office for bishops and U.S. cardinals Timothy Dolan, the exuberant archbishop of New York, and Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston.
In a final appeal before the conclave began, the dean of the College of Cardinals, retired Cardinal Angelo Sodano, used his homily at a morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica to urge unity. He asked that cardinals put their differences aside for the good of the church and the future pope.
“Each of us is therefore called to cooperate with the successor of Peter, the visible foundation of such an ecclesial unity,” Sodano said.
He was interrupted by applause from the public in the pews — not so much from the cardinals — when he referred to the “beloved and venerated” Benedict XVI and his “brilliant” pontificate.
Sitting in the front row was Benedict's long-time aide, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who reported that the now-emeritus pope was watching the proceedings from his residence in Castel Gandolfo, 17 miles away, according to Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica.
For more than a week, the cardinals have met privately to try to figure out who among them has the stuff to be pope and what his priorities should be. But they ended the debate with questions still unanswered, and many cardinals predicting a drawn-out election that will further expose the church's divisions. The conclave proceeds in silence, with no formal debate, behind closed doors.
During discussions before the conclave, Vatican-based cardinals defended their administration against complaints that they have been unresponsive to diocesan needs, according to leaks of the proceedings in the Italian media. At one point on Monday, the Brazilian head of one Vatican office reportedly drew applause for challenging the Vatican No. 2, who has been blamed for most of the bureaucracy's administrative failings.
“Let us pray for the cardinals who are to elect the Roman pontiff,” read one of the prayers during the Mass. “May the Lord fill them with his Holy Spirit, with understanding and good counsel, wisdom and discernment.”
In his final radio address Tuesday before being sequestered, Dolan said a certain calm had taken hold, as if “this gentle Roman rain is a sign of the grace of the Holy Spirit coming upon us.”
“And there's a sense of resignation and conformity with God's plan. It's magnificent,” he said during his regular radio program on SiriusXM's Catholic Channel.
Outside, the faithful gathered to await the outcome, with groups of nuns singing and playing the guitar, cheering the cardinals on.
“I don't expect any quick fixes. There will always be problems,” said Sister Manaoag, a nun from the Philippines. “We have to not get stuck with seeing things like factions and problems, but see beyond that. What does God want? This is something we sometimes forget.”
Other pilgrims acknowledged the challenges facing the church.
“It's a moment of crisis for the church, so we have to show support of the new pope,” said Veronica Herrera, a real estate agent from Mexico who traveled to Rome for the conclave with her husband and daughter.
Yet the mood was not entirely somber.
A group of women who say they are priests launched pink smoke from a balcony overlooking the square to demand female ordination — a play on the famous smoke signals that will tell the world whether a pope has been elected. Two topless activists from Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group, were dragged away by police. Femen activists have previously protested the Vatican's opposition to gay marriage.
And in a bizarre twist, basketball star Dennis Rodman promised to be in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday in a makeshift popemobile as he campaigns for Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana to become the first black pope.
None of the cardinals will see it, since they will be sequestered inside the Vatican walls. They are allowed to travel only from the Vatican hotel through the gardens to the Sistine Chapel and back until they have elected a pope. No telephones, no newspapers, no television, no tweeting.
The focus of the ritual is on the Sistine Chapel, the Michelangelo masterwork painted over the course of nearly 30 years starting in 1508, and so astonishing to Pope John Paul II that he called it “the sanctuary of the theology of the body.”
The most famous frescoes are “Creation,” a series of nine paintings running the length of the ceiling, the most well-known of which is the “Creation of Adam,” showing God and Adam, their fingers reaching out to one another. “The Last Judgment” behind the altar depicts a muscular Jesus surrounded by naked masses, some ascending to heaven and others falling to hell.
Benedict once wrote that the images of the beginning and the end of creation weighed on him when, as then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was an elector in the 1978 conclave that brought John Paul II to the papacy.
“I know well how we were exposed to those images in the hour of the important decisions, how they challenged us and how they instilled in our souls the greatness of our responsibility,” Ratzinger said in 2003, at the presentation of a book of poetry by John Paul about the Sistine frescoes.
That burden, coupled with so much uncertainty and upheaval going into the conclave, led the American cardinals to disagree on whether to expect a short or long conclave.
Cardinal Dolan this week publicly expressed optimism that the election would be wrapped up quickly. And on the eve of the conclave, he wrote a letter to New York priests, saying: “My guess is that we'd have a new Successor of St. Peter by Thursday evening,” according to Dolan's spokesman, Joseph Zwilling.
That bullish stance stood in stark contrast with the view of Chicago Cardinal Francis George.
His spokeswoman, Colleen Dolan, told The Associated Press that the cardinal suggested it could be a long affair, raising the possibility that the electors may still be meeting by Saturday, when conclave rules require them to take a break and spend some time in prayer before resuming voting.
Another American had something else entirely on his mind. On the day of the conclave, the archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay nearly $10 million to settle four clergy sex abuse cases that alleged abuse by a now-defrocked priest who told Cardinal Roger Mahony nearly 30 years ago that he had molested children.
Mahony ignored a petition urging him to recuse himself from the conclave because of how he covered up for abusive priests and is taking part in the voting.