Black smoke billowed from the copper chimney of the Sistine Chapel on Monday, signifying that Roman Catholic cardinals had failed to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II on their first vote and heralding another round of secret balloting on Tuesday.
When the first wisps of smoke appeared outside the chapel, there was a ripple of excitement across the crowd of 30,000 keeping vigil in St. Peter's Square. Some briefly thought they had seen white smoke, which would indicate the selection of a new pope. But such a result in the first round would have been a historical rarity.
The 115 voting cardinals will continue casting ballots, in two sessions a day, until two-thirds -- 77 of them -- choose the 265th pope. If the conclave continues beyond about 12 days, the cardinals could switch to an election by simple majority, a procedural change introduced by John Paul.
The balloting followed a day of stately ritual. One potential candidate, the influential Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, delivered a hard-hitting sermon at a pre-conclave Mass attended by the cardinals. A close associate of John Paul and the dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger launched a passionate defense of strict orthodoxy.
"To have a clear faith according to the church's creed is today often labeled fundamentalism," he told the cardinals and the congregation packed into St. Peter's Basilica. "While relativism, letting ourselves be carried away by any wind of doctrine, appears as the only appropriate attitude for the today's times. A dictatorship of relativism is established that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."
Ratzinger's speech expounded one side of an argument that is framing the conclave. Opponents say that Ratzinger and other Vatican-based prelates are stifling Catholic debate on religious and ethical subjects. A dispute between so-called conservatives and progressives in the conclave could overshadow issues of personality and geography in choosing the next pope, according to Vatican watchers.
The church has been shaken by "numerous ideological currents," Ratzinger said. "The boat has been unanchored by these waves, thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, up to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and on and on.
"An adult faith does not follow the waves of fashion and the latest novelty," he concluded.
During the sermon, the cardinals sat stiffly on chairs arranged in a crescent in front of the canopied altar. At the homily's end, many in the congregation behind them applauded. One ally of Ratzinger, Cardinal Camillo Ruini of Italy, discreetly clapped his hands.
In a series of speeches since late March, Ratzinger has emphasized shoring up faith and obedience as a cure for societal ills in modern industrialized countries. As head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger disciplined clerics and theologians who questioned John Paul's teachings on subjects ranging from the ban on artificial contraception to the need for celibacy in the clergy. Over the past two years, Ratzinger also issued a number of controversial documents and statements, among them a letter decrying radical feminism, and in an interview opposed the proposed membership of Turkey -- a predominantly Muslim nation -- in the European Union.
The directness of Ratzinger's sermon on Monday surprised some. "His speech was rather unusually straightforward," said Lucetta Scaraffia, a history professor at La Sapienza University in Rome. "Usually, just before a conclave, cardinals try to present themselves as a mediator. That's not Ratzinger. You might say it was courageous."
"I thought it was Ratzinger saying, in effect, what you see is what you get," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things. "It was vintage Ratzinger -- calm, deliberate, precise, incisive."
The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said Ratzinger's homily indicated that he believes the pope's role is to "protect the sheep from the prowling wolves of unorthodoxy and relativism. He wants to defend the fact that truth is absolute and the church must speak the truth and be faithful to it."
McBrien added, "If Cardinal Ratzinger were really campaigning for pope, he would have given a far more conciliatory homily designed to appeal to the moderates as well as to the hard-liners among the cardinals."
"I think this homily shows he realizes he's not going to be elected. He's too much of a polarizing figure," McBrien said. "If he were elected, thousands upon thousands of Catholics in Europe and the United States would roll their eyes and retreat to the margins of the church."
A potential rival to Ratzinger is another influential cardinal, Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, whose philosophy sometimes clashes with Ratzinger's. Because of health problems, Martini is not regarded as a prime papal candidate, but he is a standard-bearer for change in the church.
A year ago in an interview with the Rome newspaper Il Tempo, he called for power-sharing with bishops -- so that they become "a council of regents for the church, besides the pope" -- and for discussion of the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and other controversial topics.
Historically, senior cardinals who were respected enough to be mentioned as candidates exerted strong influence at conclaves. Both Martini and Ratzinger are 78.
After Monday's Mass, the cardinals filed out of the basilica for lunch at their residence within the Vatican walls. At 4:30 p.m., they began a slow procession from the Apostolic Palace, the huge Renaissance structure of frescoed galleries, apartments and meeting rooms, to the Sistine Chapel.
After the river of red caps and robes flowed through the chapel door, the cardinals stood behind long tables set up specially for the vote. Each then swore an oath of secrecy at a podium set under Michelangelo's giant fresco of Jesus presiding over the Last Judgment; among other images, the fresco portrays evil-doers on their way to hell.
Ratzinger, as dean, was first to take the oath, which pledges "secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman pontiff." He then placed his hand on an open copy of the Gospels to seal the promise.
After all the cardinals had made the same pledge, Vatican television cameras were turned off and the doors of the chapel were closed. Although the televised images were unprecedented, the broadcast fell into line with the broad media access provided for the several past days of transition ceremonies.
Reporters' contact with the cardinals, however, was sharply proscribed shortly after John Paul's April 8 funeral. In refusing to speak to journalists, the cardinals ended a tradition of open pre-conclave discussion of church issues.
Secrecy within the Sistine Chapel is safeguarded by new high-tech measures. A false floor was installed last week to accommodate electronic anti-bugging devices, Vatican officials said. Mobile phones, radios, television sets and Internet connections all are prohibited at the cardinals' temporary Vatican residence to ensure no information leaks into or out of the conclave.