VATICAN CITY — Black smoke billowed over the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday, signaling that Roman Catholic cardinals had reached no decision on the first day of their papal conclave and keeping the world — as well as the soggy faithful who braved thunderstorms over St. Peter’s Square — on tenterhooks about a successor to Benedict XVI.
The black smoke indicated an expected lack of consensus and, potentially, the floating of trial balloons during the conclave’s first session, which rarely yields a new pope. Four votes a day — two in the morning, two in the evening — will be held among the 115 cardinals until a new pope is elected. Conclaves are officially open-ended, but none has lasted more than five days in more than a century. White smoke would signal the election of a new pontiff.
Although producing no new pope, the day offered a rare glimpse inside the ancient traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The solemn pomp of scarlet-clad cardinals in procession toward the Sistine Chapel amid Latin chants underscored the millennial nature of the church in the age of the Internet.
Yet the uncertainty about who would be the church’s next leader seemed only to fuel the relentless chatter around Vatican City about the contenders, any of whom would take over the helm of a Vatican swirling in crisis. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, was viewed as a strong front-runner before the last conclave in 2005.
But no candidate has clearly claimed that title here. Instead, the focus was on a small group of papabili, or possible popes, including Cardinals Angelo Scola of Italy, Odilo Scherer of Brazil and Marc Ouellet of Canada.
Other possibilities are Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Sean O’Malley of Boston, either of whom, if elected, would emerge as the first “superpower” pope. Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio, the Philippines’ Luis Antonio Tagle and Italy’s Angelo Bagnasco are among the cardinals listed as long shots.
Among all of them, Scola appears to be trending the most among analysts, although his chances could diminish, observers say, the longer the conclave lasts.
“If Scola doesn’t wrap it up tomorrow, if there’s not enough support for him, there is a chance he stalls,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst for the National Catholic Reporter who is in Rome for the conclave. “The shorter it goes, the better the chances for any of the front-runners. Should it go more than two or three days, then all bets are off, and the options for the next pope grow.”
As the black smoke spread over the square, people posed for pictures in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and a jumbo screen broadcasting a close-up of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney.
Sister Bernadetta Luburic of Croatia looked on from the square. “If it were tonight,” she said, “that would be a miracle.”
The conclave officially began after Guido Marini, the master of papal liturgical ceremonies, cried “Extra omnes,” meaning “Everyone out!” A cast of church players — including Georg Ganswein, the confidant of Benedict; the trio of polyglot priests who brief the press; assorted bishops and mystery men in suits — spilled out of the Sistine Chapel. Marini, in a purple cloak, then closed the massive wooden doors, allowing the princes of the church to get down to the business of picking the 266th pope.
Behind the doors, Maltese Cardinal Prosper Grech, 87, an Augustinian priest and expert on the fathers of the early church, gave a meditation “on the problems facing the church” and “on the need for careful discernment in choosing the new pope.”
That came after a day of ceremony that began with the cardinals checking into the Domus Santa Marta, a residence that Pope John Paul II built as an improvement over their ill-equipped former quarters at the Apostolic Palace. The new rooms, still bare-bones, are assigned by lot to prevent any undue pressure on neighboring electors. Those accommodations will form the setting of consensus-building and intense lobbying until Day Two of the conclave begins.
Before their journey to the Sistine Chapel — which had been swept for listening devices and fitted with jamming equipment to block the sending of text messages, e-mails or tweets — the cardinals celebrated a Mass dedicated to the pope’s election, an effort to put them in a serene state of mind for the big event. Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, walked last in the procession, carrying a golden staff and swinging incense around the platform.
Sodano, who is over 80 and so cannot enter the conclave to vote, delivered the homily, the same role that Ratzinger carried out eight years ago before entering the conclave from which he emerged as Pope Benedict XVI.
In several days of pre-conclave meetings, the major fault line that has risen among the cardinals lies between those who want a strong manager to reform the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church, and those who are more interested in a powerful pastor who can keep the flock intact and attract new faithful.
In his talk, Sodano, who is considered a barometer of the Curia, uttered not a word about management. Instead, he emphasized the need for a good pastor and a strong commitment to evangelization.
“In the wake of this service of love toward the church and toward all of humanity, the last popes have been builders of so many good initiatives for people and for the international community, tirelessly promoting justice and peace,” Sodano said. “Let us pray that the future pope may continue this unceasing work on the world level. . . . Let us pray that the Lord will grant us a pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart.”