- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

VATICAN CITY - Jet-black smoke billowed from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday evening, indicating that Roman Catholic cardinals failed in the first round of voting to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

The smoke from the burning of the ballots emerged after dark, with only a few hundred people on hand in St. Peter’s Square on a cold and drizzly night.

With the initial vote concluded, the 115 cardinals meeting in secret in the Sistine Chapel were scheduled to recite an evening prayer before traveling to the St. Martha House, the Vatican hotel adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, for dinner.

Up to four votes will take place each day beginning Wednesday, the first full day of the papal conclave. Two votes are scheduled before and after lunch every day until one of the 115 cardinals accumulates 77 votes, a two-thirds majority, enough to become the next pope, who will face immense challenges from corruption scandals to charges of mismanagement in the Vatican.

However, many Rome residents were focusing on the mystery of the conclave, not the misdeeds of some church officials and priests.

“I wanted to be here for the first vote because it is part of history,” sand Tonino Biaggi, 33, an employee at a nearby coffee house. “I cannot attend for every vote, but at least I can say I was in St. Peter’s Square for the first one.”

The thick black smoke that wafted into the sky over Rome on Tuesday showed that officials managed to fix one of the sources of frustration from the last conclave.

In 2005, anxious Catholics were confused as they looked to the chimney for signs of the voting. Black smoke means no pope was elected, while white means the cardinals have selected the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

But most of the time, the smoke was just gray, leaving observers confused about the cardinals’ actions.

This time, the Vatican developed a chemical mix to be added to the burning ballots to assure there would be no difficulty discerning black from white this time around.

Nobody expected a victor to emerge the first day. The last time that happened was when a conclave of just 18 cardinals unanimously elected Pope Gregory XI on the first ballot in 1371.

In each of the 65 conclaves since then, the first vote has been a way to test the relative support of different candidate.

According to Vatican watchers, potential favorites can be undone if they manage only scattered votes in early ballots because the church leaders will lean toward cardinals with significant blocs of support.

In 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict when he was selected on the fourth ballot.

Two cardinals have emerged as leading contenders: Archbishop Angelo Scola of Italy and Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil. Archbishop Scola is favored by those who want to shake up the Vatican bureaucracy, crippled by a banking scandal and other charges of mismanagement, and a church priesthood undermined by accusations of sexual abuse. Cardinal Scherer is mostly backed by defenders of the status quo.

Tuesday’s activities started out with a series of oaths and vows led by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, promising in Latin to keep the conclave proceedings secret. Oddsmakers give him an outside chance to be elected pope.

The cardinals promised that if selected as pontiff they would faithfully serve as pope. All this pomp and circumstance was shown on Vatican TV and broadcast on all the main Italian networks and across the world.

After that ceremony, a church official ordered administrators, lower-level clergy, members of the Vatican press pool and a few attendants to leave the chapel covered in Michelangelo’s famous frescoes.

The oversized wooden doors to the Sistine Chapel were pulled closed with cameras showing the last fleeting glimpses of the cardinals inside. They will not be seen again until after it is white smoke that billows from the chimney.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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