Black smoke poured from the specially built chimney on top of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel last night in a sign that the 115 red-robed cardinals of the conclave had failed to elect a new Pope on the first day of voting.
Darkness has already fallen when the smoke appeared. It was greeted with some shrieks from a few hundred rain-drenched faithful, vastly outnumbered by the world's media, who looked on from under their umbrellas in St Peter's Square.
After a disastrous decade for the Catholic Church, which has been embroiled in clerical sex abuse scandals and accusations of corruption in the Vatican administration, the cardinals must choose a figure who can inject new hope into the Church.
Yesterday, after the Sistine Chapel had been swept for listening devices and laced with signal jammers to block contact with the outside world, each cardinal swore a solemn oath not to reveal the secrets of their deliberations or face being cast out from the Church.
The head of ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, then addressed all those not associated with the conclave with the words "Extra Omnes" (all out), to enable the secretive process of the conclave to start. It began 12 days after Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in modern times to step down from his role.
As all of the 115 of the cardinals are theoretically candidates for the papacy, and the winner must receive two-thirds of the votes, the failure to reach a decision was not a surprise.
Yesterday's vote should give an indication of who the key candidates may be. The conclave will meet again today, vote twice in the morning and evening until a decision is reached. When it is, the smoke will be white.
Last night, bookies and Vatican insiders were tipping the leading Italian candidate as the most likely to win, though the delay has led to rumours of infighting among the Princes of the Church. Angelo Scola (71), the Archbishop of Milan, the Church's biggest diocese, was said yesterday to have garnered up to 50 votes of the 77 needed to become the 266th Pope, after several days of discussions between cardinals that preceded the conclave.
Odillo Scherer of Brazil, Timothy Dolan of New York and Marc Ouellet of Canada were said to be the other front-runners.
Many pundits say the unprecedented pressures on the Church hierarchy mean the result of the election is difficult to predict.
Pressure is being exerted from some quarters for there to be an Italian Pope for the first time since 1978, but the names of North American and Latin American cardinals are also on many people's lips – as is that of Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.
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