VATICAN CITY — This time there was no doubt. There was no new pope yet, and the mystery of who — and when — was as thick as the unmistakable heavy black smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel chimney.
As thousands waited in a cold night rain in St. Peter's Square, the cardinals signaled Tuesday they had failed on their first attempt to choose a leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
"It's black, it's black, it's waaay black!" screamed Eliza Nagle, a 21-year-old Notre Dame theology major on an exchange program in Rome, as the smoke poured from the 6-foot-high copper chimney at 7:41 p.m.
"They definitely got the color right this time," agreed Father Andrew Gawrych, an American priest based in Rome, referring to the confusion over the smoke during the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
The cardinals must come back for another day of voting today.
Tuesday's drama unfolded against the backdrop of the turmoil unleashed by Benedict's surprise resignation and the exposure of deep divisions among cardinals grappling with whether they need a manager to clean up the Vatican's dysfunctional bureaucracy or a pastor who can inspire Catholics at a time of waning faith and growing secularism.
Surrounded by Michelangelo's imposing frescoes portraying the beginning and the end of the world, cardinals locked themselves into the Sistine Chapel after a final appeal for unity by their dean and set about the business of electing the 266th pope.
The 115 scarlet-robed prelates chanted the Litany of Saints, the sounds of the Gregorian chant echoing through the soaring hall as, walking two-by-two, they implored the saints to guide their voting. They then took an oath of secrecy, first collectively and then individually, as each placed his right hand on the gospel and intoned the words in Latin accented by their native languages — English, German, French, Italian, Arabic and so on.
Then the master of liturgical ceremonies intoned the words "Extra omnes" — "everyone out" — and dozens of prelates and Vatican officials departed as the chapel's heavy, ornately carved wooden doors swung shut.
With no cardinal winning the required 77 votes on the first ballot, the cardinals returned to the Vatican hotel for a simple dinner of pasta with tomato sauce, soup and vegetables.
Benedict's surprise resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed divisions between Vatican-based cardinals and those in the field who have complained about Rome's indifference to their needs.
The leading contenders for pope have fallen into two camps, with Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, seen as favored by those hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer favored by Vatican insiders who have defended the status quo.
Other names include Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who heads the Vatican's powerful office for bishops, and U.S. cardinals Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston.
In a final appeal before the conclave began, the dean of the College of Cardinals, retired Cardinal Angelo Sodano, used his homily at a morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica to urge unity. He asked that cardinals put their differences aside for the good of the church and the future pope.
Sitting in the front row was Benedict's long-time aide, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who reported that the now-emeritus pope was watching the proceedings from Castel Gandolfo, 17 miles away, according to the Rev. Thomas Rosica, Vatican spokesman.