VATICAN CITY — Black smoke over the Vatican — we do not have a new Pope.
The 115 cardinals who have locked themselves inside the Sistine Chapel revealed to the world that they have failed to select a new pontiff on their first ballot — a widely expected outcome as the papal conclave got underway Tuesday afternoon.
The cardinals will return for two votes Wednesday morning and, if no white smoke billows over the Vatican, two more votes in the afternoon.
The process will continue until one of the cardinals emerges with a two-thirds majority — 77 votes.
The last nine conclaves have lasted an average of three days.
The puff of black smoke came about three hours after the cardinals locked themselves into the Sistine Chapel to be alone with their thoughts and their prayers as began the selection process for a new Pope.
Earlier in the day, thousands of worshippers packed into St. Peter’s Basilica to pray with the cardinal-electors during their final mass hours before entering the conclave.
It was standing room only throughout the nearly two-hour service which is the last time the princes of the church will be seen in public before one of them greets the world as Pope Benedict’s successor.
Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals and an influential Vatican figure, led the Mass and gave a 15-minute homily calling for the church to pull together.
“St. Paul teaches that each of us must work to build up the unity of the Church,” Sodano said, a seeming reference to the sex scandals and financial corruption which marred Benedict’s papacy.
Sodano also stressed the importance of evangelization, charity and working for greater justice and peace.
“Let us pray that the Lord will grant us a pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart,” he said.
Sodano is considered a papal kingmaker in a contest that remains wide open, experts say. Even New York’s cardinal, Timothy Dolan, is seen has having a legitimate shot to become America’s first Pope.
The 115 cardinals donned wearing regal red and gold robes in a solemn procession which led down the center aisle.
They held their hands in prayer and most kept their eyes focused straight ahead or on the ground, despite the hundreds of cameras pointing in their direction.
Dolan surveyed the scene as if struggling to take it all in, and couldn’t resist giving a quick wink to a member of the congregation before pointing the index fingers of his clasped hands towards the sky and smiling.
“We are always hopeful for an American Pope,” said Jolie Frank, 60, from Washington, D.C., who attended the service with her family.
The day began early for Dolan and the eight other United States cardinals who are under 80, and therefore eligible to vote in the conclave.
Shortly after 7 a.m. they left the North American College, the elite U.S. seminary school for men training to be priests, and boarded a bus to Casa Santa Marta where they will stay for the duration of the conclave.
Dolan boarded the vehicle last with an air of joy and serenity about him.
He smile broadly and waved at the waiting reporters, even quickly hoisting up his long black cassock slightly to show that his socks were black, not cardinal red.
As he took his seat near the front of the bus, he tapped his gold signet ring on the window and offered a quick salute to the crowds.
Dozens of seminarians, all dressed in black suits and collars, lined the driveway and applauded as the bus drove off.
“We wanted to show our love for them and let them know that our prayers are with them as they make this important decision,” said deacon Peter Heasley, 33, who is from Manhattan and in his fourth year studying at the North American College.
“We wanted to show our support to them, as sons do to fathers going off to battle.”
The momentous and much-anticipated day came one month and one day after Benedict shocked the world by announcing his resignation, making him the first Pope who did not die in the position in more than 600 years.
Most of the cardinals have spent the past 10 days in meetings discussing the future of the Catholic Church and the qualities they hope to see in the next Pope. But now the time for talking is over, and the time to pray and vote is upon them.
They entered the Sistine Chapel about 5:30 p.m. Rome time — 12:30 p.m. New York time — in a procession leading from the Pauline Chapel.
Once inside the beautiful chamber decorated with Michelangelo’s Renaissance frescoes, the words “extra omnes” — everyone out — were uttered and the cardinal-electors will be left alone.
The men voted once Tuesday evening and will return for four more votes Wednesday, and will keep voting, four times a day until a Pope is selected — signified by white smoke from the chimney.
Every evening they will return to Casa Santa Marta, within Vatican City, were they will be cut off from all communication including phones, newspapers, television and internet.
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