Shoes in Room of Tears still await a new pope.
BLACK smoke poured from the Sistine Chapel chimney last night, signalling that cardinals have failed to elect a pope on their first try.
They had earlier locked themselves inside the Sistine Chapel to choose a new leader for the world's 1.2billion Catholics and their troubled church.
Surrounded by Michelangelo's imposing frescos imagining the beginning and the end of the world, the 115 scarlet-robed men entered their conclave with a final appeal for unity to heal the divisions that have been exposed by Pope Benedict XVI's resignation and revelations of corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Led by prelates holding a crucifix and candles, the cardinals chanted the Litany of Saints, the Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of the saints, as they filed into the chapel and took their oath of secrecy.
With a dramatic closing of the thick double doors and the exhortation "Extra omnes" or "all out," the ritual-filled conclave began beneath Michelangelo's frescoed Creation and before his Last Judgment - potent images for the task at hand.
While few people expect a pontiff to be elected on the first ballot, the Vatican was ready. In the Room of Tears off the Sistine Chapel, three sizes of white cassocks hung from a clothes rack. Underneath, seven white shoe boxes were piled, presumably containing the various sizes of the red leather shoes that popes traditionally wear.
The room gets its name from the weight of the job thrust upon the new pontiff.
Benedict XVI's resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed deep divisions among cardinals grappling with apparently conflicting needs for a manager to clean up the Vatican's bureaucracy and a pastor who can inspire Catholics at a time of waning faith and growing secularism.
The buzz swirled around Cardinal Angelo Scola, an Italian seen as favoured by cardinals hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, a favourite of Vatican-based insiders intent on preserving the status quo. Other names included Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican's powerful office for bishops, and US Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the exuberant archbishop of New York. In a final appeal before the conclave began, the dean of the College of Cardinals, retired Cardinal Angelo Sodano, appealed for unity.
For over a week, the cardinals have met behind closed doors 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 predicting a drawn-out election that will further expose divisions. The conclave proceeds in silence, with no debate.
During the discussions, Vatican-based cardinals defended their administration against complaints that they have been indifferent to cardinals in the field. At one point, the Brazilian head of one Vatican office 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."
A few hundred people braved thunderstorms and pouring rain to watch the mass on giant TV screens in St Peter's Square. A handful knelt in prayer, eyes clenched and hands clasped. They stayed on through the rain, watching the narrow chimney atop the chapel for the first puffs of smoke which signal whether a pope has been elected or not.
The cardinals 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 cardinals began the process by filing into the Sistine Chapel. After the doors closed, they heard a meditation by an elderly Maltese cardinal and were then expected to cast their first ballots.
The cardinals return to the Apostolic Palace for mass today and a new round of voting.
Black smoke signals failure to choose a new pope
Cardinals in red attend a mass for the election of a new pope celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, centre of the stage