First Day Of Catholic Cardinals' Conclave Rich In Ceremony

On Tuesday, 115 cardinals convened, celebrated mass and then entered the Sistine Chapel for the first day of closed door deliberations on who should be the next pope.

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As night fell over Rome, thick black smoke drifted from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel. That means no new pope yet. Clearly, no candidate secured enough votes in the first ballot. That smoke signal completed a day that, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, was rich in ceremony.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The process of electing a pope is officially now under way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: The day began according to rituals honed over the centuries. The cardinals, who are electing their church's 266th pontiff, gathered in St. Peter's Basilica for a special service, a Mass for the election of a pope.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASS)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: These are turbulent times for the Roman Catholic Church; it's buffeted by division and scandal. So when, in his homily, Cardinal Angelo Sodano appealed for unity, it carried particular weight.

In the afternoon, the conclave began. Intoning Gregorian chants, appealing to the saints and the Holy Spirit for help making their decision, the cardinals filed in procession into the Sistine Chapel. They lined up beneath Michelangelo's tumultuous and dazzling biblical frescoes, a blaze of red in their cardinals' robes. One by one, they took the oath of secrecy.

CARDINAL ANGELO SCOLA: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: That's Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan. He's considered a strong contender. But Scola is far from the only one whose name is the subject of speculation.

CARDINAL TIMOTHY DOLAN: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Then, in line with tradition, came the order from the master of ceremonies.

FATHER GUIDO MARINI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Everyone out. The lock-in began, and, concealed from the eyes of the world, so did the first ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORM)

REEVES: Outside, the weather played havoc. On the night Pope Benedict XVI resigned, a month ago, the dome of St. Peter's was struck by lightning. Today, there were more storms.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: In St. Peter's Square, a sparse crowd gathered in the cold to watch events on huge screens. As evening fell, their numbers grew, all eyes fixed on the small, rust-colored chimney on the Sistine Chapel roof.

It's 7:41, and rising out of the chimney above the Sistine Chapel where the cardinals have been deliberating for the last several hours is a stream of thick smoke, and it is black. Black smoke means no candidate received two-thirds of the vote.

No one really expected a pope to be chosen today. The outcome didn't seem to disappoint the crowd, who included Ximena Hernandez(ph), a student from Florida.

XIMENA HERNANDEZ: It is exciting. It's just like being in history, basically, in the making. So it's really exciting.

REEVES: Stella Jennings(ph) traveled to Rome from England to witness this scene. What was it like seeing it for real?

STELLA JENNINGS: Well, it was just amazing. I was amazed how many people stood there in the rain and waiting. They won't - they wouldn't go away just in case.

REEVES: Pope Benedict was elected after two days and four ballots. It took three days and eight ballots to choose his predecessor, John Paul II. No one knows how long this conclave will last. With no clear frontrunner, it may take a while. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rome.

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