VATICAN CITY -- Black smoke billowed from the chimney of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel Tuesday, signaling that no one was elected, on the first try, to be the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Some observers who gathered in St. Peter's Square agreed with experts on the church and did not expect the 115 cardinals assembled in a conclave to elect a new pontiff so quickly.
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"That first smoke looked like it was almost white, and then the crowd let out a collective sigh," said Zachary Zelewski of Houston, who was hoping to see the new pope before leaving the Eternal City Wednesday.
"I didn't expect white smoke," said Andrea Pantanello from Romania, who now lives in Rome, adding, "It's difficult to come to an agreement on the first try."
Crowds watched on big screens as the black smoke billowed for a few minutes, leaving no doubt that the cardinals had yet to reach a consensus.
The cardinals held the first day of the conclave Tuesday, divided over who should succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned this past month.
Earlier, dozens of red-vested cardinals attended Mass and walked through St. Peter's Basilica before sequestering themselves in the Sistine Chapel to begin the 266th conclave of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the last glimpse the public would have of them before they elect the next pope.
Over the next few days, the electors will vote as many as four times each day, twice in the morning and twice in the evening. In order to see white smoke, the signal that one has been chosen, a candidate must get at least 77 out of 115 votes.
The cardinals had filed through the marbled nave of the basilica for a pre-conclave Mass in a solemn procession marking the dawn of the moment the prelates select a new pope.
"We implore the Lord, that through the pastoral solitude of the Cardinal Fathers, He may soon grant another Good Shepherd to his holy church," said Cardinal Angelo Sodano from Italy, the dean of cardinals who celebrated the Mass as Gregorian chants from the Sistine Chapel choir filled the air.
During the homily, Sodano thanked Benedict -- the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.
"To whom we renew in this moment all of our gratitude," Sodano said. The basilica roared with applause.
People had lined up since early morning to get front-row seats inside the basilica -- and get a closer look at the "Papabili," the cardinals considered front-runners in the papal election.
"We are here to pray with the cardinals for a result that is in alignment with God's will," said Angela Sharf, a pilgrim from Ohio.
One believer from northern Italy packed his bags and headed for Vatican City as soon as he heard the date of the conclave.
"I think we are going through a very delicate phase throughout the world right now," Pierantonio Montagnini said, "and I'm sure the cardinals have thought this through as they make their decision."
Despite the solemnity of the event, cardinal electors must make a decision grounded in weighty, earthy concerns: They are choosing a new leader as the Vatican is in a state of turmoil, with scandals of corruption and divisions -- many generated inside the Roman Curia itself.
So, electors are faced with the tough task of choosing the right man to manage the Vatican and unite the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.
While there are various short lists formed by speculators worldwide, "the new pope could be somebody who has never been featured in the media, or even mentioned," said Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect for the Apostolic Library in Vatican City.
In his book, "History of Papal Elections," Piazzoniwrites that elections are almost always a surprise: Of nearly 300 elections in the history of the conclave, front-runners emerged as pope only 12 times, he said.
During the election of Pope John Paul II, the two Italians were front-runners, and in the end, a young cardinal from Poland became the new pontiff.
"There's a saying in Rome, 'Who enters the conclave a pope, leaves a cardinal,' " Piazzoni said.
Among the top front-runners are Angelo Scola from Italy and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer. From North America, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York are the most popular.
"Cardinal Dolan is my bishop," said Peter Heasley, a New York native studying to be a priest. "He's always been very warm, and even during this busy time has taken time to meet with us."
"It can be something very good," Remegio said. "As it would be if it were an Asian pope or from Latin America, but in this situation I will accept any pope God gives us."
With Zachary R. Dowdy
DAY 1: Voting begins at the Sistine Chapel. No pope is picked.
DAY 2: Up to four votes arescheduled, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. After a vote, black smoke indicates no one received the necessary two-thirds of the vote. White smoke means a pope has been chosen.