VATICAN CITY — Black smoke poured from the Sistine Chapel chimney on Tuesday, signaling that cardinals had failed on their first vote of the papal conclave to choose a new leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and their troubled church.
Surrounded by Michelangelo's imposing frescos imagining the beginning and the end of the world, cardinals locked themselves into the chapel following a final appeal for unity to heal the divisions that have been exposed by Pope Benedict XVI's shocking resignation and revelations of corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Led by prelates holding a crucifix and candles, the 115 scarlet-robed prelates chanted the Litany of Saints, the hypnotic Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of the saints to guide their voting, before the master of liturgical ceremonies intoned "Extra omnes" or "all out" and closed the heavy wooden doors.
Outside, thousands of people braved cold night rain and packed St. Peter's Square, eyes fixed on the narrow chimney poking out of the Sistine Chapel roof. They were rewarded some three hours after the conclave began when thick black smoke billowed out of the chimney, signaling that no pope had been elected.
The cardinals now return to the Vatican hotel for the night and resume voting Wednesday morning.
Benedict XVI's surprise resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed 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.
The leading contenders for pope have fallen into one of the two camps, with Cardinal Angelo Scola, seen as favored by those hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, favored by Vatican-based insiders who have defended the status quo. Other names included Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who heads the Vatican's powerful office for bishops, and U.S. 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, urged unity within the church, asking the cardinal electors to put their differences aside for the good of the church and the future pope.
"Each of us is therefore called to cooperate with the Successor of Peter, the visible foundation of such an ecclesial unity," Sodano said. He said the job of pope is to be merciful, charitable and "tirelessly promote justice and peace."
He was interrupted by applause from the pews — not so much from the cardinals — when he referred to the "beloved and venerated" Benedict XVI and his "brilliant" pontificate.
Sitting in the front row was Benedict's longtime aide, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who reported that Benedict was watching the proceedings from the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, according to a Vatican spokesman the Rev. Thomas Rosica.
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 on Monday with questions still unanswered, and many cardinals predicting a drawn-out election that will further expose the church's divisions. The conclave proceeds in silence, with no formal debate, behind closed doors.