VATICAN CITY – The gathering of Roman Catholic cardinals to pick a new pope began Tuesday with an oath of secrecy and an inaugural vote that produced no quick winner but gave the prelates their first look at which candidates are garnering the most support.
Black smoke billowed from the chimney atop the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on Tuesday evening less than 2 hours after the doors were shut to outsiders and the cardinals within prepared to cast ballots for the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. The dark plume signified an inconclusive vote, and a disappointed murmur rose from the crowd of thousands who had assembled in St. Peter’s Square in anticipation, despite the threat of rain and hail.
An immediate agreement on a new pontiff was never likely. But the first vote is always important as a measure of the strength of support for particular candidates. It also lets the cardinals chat and caucus informally at dinner and sleep on the result, to decide in the morning whether to stick to their original choice, switch sides or look for dark-horse alternatives.
What happens in the Sistine Chapel is supposed to stay in the Sistine Chapel; even support staffers attending the 115 cardinals have been sworn to silence on pain of excommunication. But attention before Tuesday focused on two contenders, Angelo Scola of Italy and Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, as the strongest candidates going into the conclave.
Whoever is chosen by at least a two-thirds majority – 77 votes in this case – will become the 266th pope, succeeding Benedict XVI, whose resignation last month threw the Catholic Church into uncertainty. He is the first pontiff to step down in six centuries, and leaves behind an institution weakened by factionalism in the Vatican hierarchy, a stubborn sex abuse scandal and challenges from other religions and secularism.
The red-hatted cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel in a solemn, chanting procession Tuesday afternoon.
After bowing to the altar in front of Michelangelo’s magnificent fresco “The Last Judgment,” they took their places in order of seniority at long tables on either side. One by one, they pledged to keep the proceedings in strictest confidence, “so help me God and these holy Gospels which I touch with my hand.”
A prelate then ordered the others to leave. Video from inside the chapel aired by the Vatican’s television service, which had beamed images of the centuries-old ritual around the world, was cut.