Thousands of the faithful huddled in St Peter’s Square to watch the smoke pour out of the narrow flue following a day rich in ritual and pageantry.
Earlier, after praying for divine guidance, the cardinals took a solemn vow in Latin never to divulge any details of their deliberations. They then secluded themselves behind the chapel’s heavy wooden doors.
No conclave in the modern era has chosen a pope on its first day, and some cardinals speculated this week that it might take four or five days to pick the man to replace Pope Benedict.
The cardinals will spend the night in a Vatican hostel before returning to the frescoed Sistine Chapel at 8.30 today to continue voting, with two rounds set for the morning and two for the afternoon.
“I am on vacation and can’t believe how lucky I am to be here at this moment,” said Patricia Purdy, a retired teacher from New York. “It would be good if he was young, so he can relate to younger people and bring them closer to the Church.”
Whoever becomes the 266th pontiff will face a daunting array of problems, including sex abuse scandals, infighting within the Vatican bureaucracy and the spread of secularism in its European heartland and beyond.
Some prelates are pushing for a strong manager to control the much criticised central administration, known as the Curia, while others want a powerful pastor to promote their faith across the globe.
Italy’s Angelo Scola and Brazil’s Odilo Scherer are spoken of as strong contenders. The former would return the papacy to Italy after 35 years in the hands of Poland’s John Paul II and the German Benedict XVI. Scherer would be the first non-European pope since Syrian-born Gregory III in the eighth century.
However, others touted as “papabili” — potential popes — include US cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O’Malley, Canada’s Marc Ouelle,t and Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri.
Latin chants accompanied the cardinals as they processed into the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ delivering the Last Judgement on the back wall and his image of the hand of God giving life to Adam on the ceiling.
The doors were shut at 5.34pm (4.34pm Irish time) after the master of ceremonies, Guido Marini, said “extra omnes” (Latin for “everyone out”), asking all those not associated with the gathering to leave the room.
Maltese Cardinal Prosper Grech, who at 87 is too old to participate in the voting, remained inside to give a sermon to remind the 115 cardinals of the gravity of their responsibility.
Earlier, at a pre-conclave Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, Italian cardinal Angelo Sodano called for unity in the Church and urged his brother cardinals to support the future pope.
“My brothers, let us pray that the Lord will grant us a pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart,” he said in his homily.
All the prelates in the Sistine Chapel were appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, and the next pontiff will almost certainly pursue their fierce defence of traditional moral teachings.
With only 24% of Catholics living in Europe, pressure is growing to choose a pontiff from elsewhere in the world who would bring a different perspective.
Latin American cardinals might worry more about poverty and the rise of evangelical churches than questions of materialism and sexual abuse that dominate in the West, while the growth of Islam is a major concern for the Church in Africa and Asia.