Black smoke poured out of the chimney above the Sistine Chapel today, signalling that the first vote for a new pope did not succeed in settling on a new pontiff.
Few expected the first vote to determine the next pope and the black smoke was not a surprise. The next vote by the Catholic cardinals is expected to be held on Wednesday.
The cardinals retreated to the Sistine Chapel in a choreagraphed procession with the 115 cardinals eligible to vote marching in two by two while singing prayers. They were dressed in white robes with short red capes and red caps known as birettas as they complied with the ancient rituals of the church and settled into assigned seats beneath the world famous frescoes created by Michelangelo for the papal conclave.
The cardinals read the secrecy oath in unison, and then came forward to individually to put their hands on the Gospels and repeat an oath of secrecy ending with the words, "the holy word of God which I touch with my hand."
The mood of the cardinals after mingling in Vatican City for several days discussing the future of the church has been optimistic. New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan predicted a new pontiff by Thursday.
Meet the Papal Contenders "My guess is that we'd have a new Successor of St. Peter by Thursday evening, with a hoped-for inaugural Mass on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, the patron of the Church Universal, a holiday, and Father's Day here in Italy," Dolan wrote to his priests n New York. The diocese spokesman confirmed the letter to ABC News.
In a final report before the conclave on The Catholic Channel/SiriusXM, Dolan said, "It's sort of a unique, special morning. I never thought I'd be doing what I'm about to do. The weather's not cooperating too much. It's kind of damp and chilly but it looks good on the horizon. Maybe this gentle Roman rain is a sign of the grace of the Holy Spirit coming upon us."
Talking about meeting the other cardinals in the days before the conclave, Dolan said 'It's been a beautiful process."
"The closer you get, the more you get settled in your mind. And there's a sense of resignation and conformity with God's plan. It's magnificent."
Before the conclave this morning the cardinals celebrated a mass in a packed St. Peter's Basilica with a homily from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the college of cardinals.
"We implore the Lord that through the pastoral solicitude of the cardinal fathers, He may soon grant another good shepherd to his holy church," Sodano said.
When Sodano praised the retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as a "beloved and venerable" pontiff, cardinals responded with a lengthy applause.
In recent days cardinals have expressed optimism that the conclave will be a quick one and a new leader of the church's 1.2 billion followers will be swiftly selected. The start of Holy Week on March 24 gives the conclave an added sense of urgency.
When the cardinal electors - only cardinals under 80 can vote - enter the conclave, they will be shut off from the outside world: no television, internet, or newspapers. Electronic jamming devices have been installed in the chapel. The cardinal electors this morning moved into Santa Marta, the house where they will reside during the conclave. Later today they will gather in the Pauline Chapel before proceeding into the Sistine Chapel, where the doors will then be locked.
After each session of voting, the ballots are burned and smoke is emitted from the chapel's chimney, with black smoke signaling that no candidate has been elected in the preceding rounds of votes and white smoke indicating a new pope has been picked.
The first smoke could be seen between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. EDT today.
On the eve of the conclave, workers hung red drapes over the window at St. Peter's Basilica where the next pontiff will be unveiled to the world for the first time. As the conclave gets underway, speculation in some Italian media outlets has centered on two figures: Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy, viewed as a reformer with the potential backing of the American and German cardinals, and Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, seen as a hardline candidate with the support of the Roman curia.
However, the race is regarded as a wide open one, with other frontrunners including Cardinals Marc Ouellet of Canada, Timothy Dolan of the United States, Sean O'Malley of the United States, Peter Erdo of Hungary, Angelo Bagnasco of Italy, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, and Schoenborn of Austria.
What are the chances of an American pope? Monsignor Christopher H. Nalty, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans told ABC News that it's not very likely.
Black Smoke Signals No Pope Yet
"My jaw would drop so much I'd need reconstructive surgery after it hits the cobblestones in the piazza," he said.
Nalty admits that the U.S. cardinals are causing a stir in Rome.
"The Americans have let their personalities shine," he said. "And I think that's getting people to talk about them. Whether it's getting the other cardinals to talk about them, that's another thing. That's for the inside of the conclave."
Whoever is elected will have to confront a slew of issues facing the church, from the sexual abuse scandals - epitomized just last month by the resignation of Scotland's cardinal - to the report into the Vatileaks scandal that will be given only to the next pope.
There is an old saying in Rome: he who enters conclave as pope exits as a cardinal, meaning that cardinal can't really campaign for the job and that frontrunners often don't win.
In the coming days, possibly as soon as this evening, the world will find out who has indeed exited as pope.