|Black smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel tonight to signal that the first day of the conclave to elect a new pope has ended without a decision.|
Earlier today 115 cardinals were locked behind the heavy wooden door to start discussions for the successor to Benedict XVI following his shock resignation.
But as darkness fell, the dark smoke plumed into the sky over the Vatican in a sign that talks had ended without a decision.
'The entire Church, united with us in prayer, asks for the grace of the Holy Spirit at this moment so that we elect a worthy shepherd for the entire flock of Christ,' a cardinal said in Latin as the procession began.
They then chanted what is known as the 'litany of saints', asking more than 150 saints by name for help in making their choice of who should succeed Benedict XVI, who has withdrawn from public life after his surprise abdication last month.
Once inside the Sistine, they took their places along the walls of the frescoed chapel and sang a hymn to the Holy Spirit, asking it to 'visit our minds' during the election process.
They then read an oath in Latin, promising to abide by all the rules of the conclave, including not to reveal anything that goes on during the conclave.
The cardinals may well decide to cast a first ballot as early as Tuesday night after the doors of the chapel, one of the world's greatest art treasures, are closed and the cardinals are sequestered inside to conduct their secret discussions.
Smoke - white for a new pontiff, black after an inconclusive vote - would emerge from the chimney on the Sistine's roof if a ballot were held.
The balloting for the next pontiff will take place under the gaze of the divine presence represented through Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar.
The solemn afternoon procession into the Sistine followed a morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica where Angelo Sodano, an Italian who is dean of the cardinals, called for unity in the Church, which has been riven with intrigue and scandal, and urged everyone to work with the next pope.
The former pontiff, who retired on Feb. 28, has excluded himself from public life and was not present on Tuesday.
No clear favourite has emerged to take the helm of the Church, with some prelates calling for a strong manager to control the much criticised Vatican bureaucracy, while others want a powerful pastor to combat growing secularism.
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The former would return the papacy to Italy after 35 years in the hands of Poland's John Paul II and the German Benedict; Scherer would be the first non-European pope since Syrian-born Gregory III in the 8th century.
On the eve of the vote, cardinals offered wildly different assessments of what they were looking for in the next pontiff and how close they were to a decision.
It was evidence that Benedict XVI's surprise resignation has continued to destabilise the church leadership and that his final appeal for unity may go unheeded, at least in the early rounds of voting.
Cardinals held their final closed-door debate yesterday over whether the church needs a manager to clean up the Vatican's bureaucratic mess or a pastor to inspire the 1.2billion faithful in times of crisis.
The fact that not everyone got a chance to speak was a clear sign that there was still unfinished business on the eve of the conclave.
'This time around, there are many different candidates, so it's normal that it's going to take longer than the last time,' Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile said.
'There are no groups, no compromises, no alliances, just each one with his conscience voting for the person he thinks is best, which is why I don't think it will be over quickly.'
None of that has prevented a storm of chatter over who is ahead.
Maybe it's easier just to wait for a text message that a new pope has been elected.
A Catholic organisation has set up a website, www.popealarm.com, that lets people register to receive a text or email notification when a pope has been selected.
While the process of selecting a new pope is as old as the ages, there are enough changes to the media to make the last papal conclave - in 2005 - seem like ancient history.
Another new website, www.adoptacardinal.org, assigns interested people one of the voting cardinals at random to pray for him as he deliberates on a new pope.
More than 450,000 people had signed up by Monday.
Cardinal Scola is affable and Italian, but not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia.
That gives him clout with those seeking to reform the nerve centre of the church that has been discredited by revelations of leaks and complaints from cardinals in the field that Rome is inefficient and unresponsive to their needs.
Cardinal Scherer seems to be favoured by Latin Americans and the Curia.
He has a solid handle on the Vatican's finances, sitting on the governing commission of the Vatican bank, as well as the Holy See's main budget committee.
As a non-Italian, the archbishop of Sao Paulo would be expected to name an Italian as secretary of state - the Vatican number two who runs day-to-day affairs - another plus for Vatican-based cardinals who would want one of their own running the shop.
If the leading names fail to reach the 77 votes required for victory in the first few rounds of balloting, any number of surprise candidates could come to the fore as alternatives. It all starts with the cardinals checking into the Santa Marta residence on the edge of the Vatican gardens.
At 10am local time the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, will lead the celebration of the 'Pro eligendo Pontificie' Mass - the Mass for the election of a pope - inside St Peter's Basilica, joined by the 115 cardinals who will vote.