Black smoke from Sistine Chapel chimney indicates no new pope on first ballot

1:16 AM, Mar 13, 2013   |    comments
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VATICAN CITY -- After the first vote, the 115 cardinals cloistered in the Sistine Chapel have indicated by black smoke from the chapel's chimney that they have not named a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

The first vote took place within hours after the cardinals entered the chapel. A pope has not been elected on the first ballot in centuries. After Tuesday's vote, four conclave votes are expected each day starting Wednesday.

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The chanting cardinals, after entering the chapel, took their individual oaths of secrecy in Latin, placing their hands on a book containing selections from the gospels. Then came the traditional order of "Extra Omnes" - "Everyone out" - that instructs support staff to leave and signals the official beginning of the conclave.

The cardinals will vote in prayerful silence. Although many use social media to connect with the faithful, everything about this historic exercise is old school. Each will receive a card with the heading "Eligo In Summum Pontifem," meaning simply "I Elect as Pope." Beneath, they handwrite their choice.

In contrast to the 2005 election that selected Pope Benedict, which came on the heels of a massively attended funeral for John Paul II, the crowds outside were sparse.

The usual mix of tourists and clergy crossed the expansive square under the threat of rain, passing Vatican TV cameras that were setting up in prime position facing the balcony on which the next pope will eventually appear. The largest groups by far were found in the always endless line of tourists waiting to enter St. Peter's Basilica.

Standing closest to the St. Peter's balcony, pressed up against a barricade, was the Herrera family from Queretaro, Mexico. In contrast to the throngs of vacationers, they made the trip to Rome solely to see the new pope elected.

"We are Catholics, and this moment means a lot to us," said Monica Herrera, flanked by her husband Ernesto and young daughter Regina. Behind them hung a Mexican flag. They plan to stake out this prime spot for as long as the conclave lasts in order to be front row when history is made.

"John Paul had a lot of charisma and Benedict was very scholarly, so the next pope has big shoes to fill," she said. "He'll have to be modern, and have the strength to confront the church's many issues. We are in a moment of crisis now."

As to who might ascend to the throne of St. Peter, Herrera's bet is "on an Italian," she said with a smile. "I think after a German and a Polish pope, they want it back."

The cardinals charged with making that decision on behalf of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics attended a special Mass in St Peter's Basilica earlier Tuesday. In his homily, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, referred to the "beloved and venerated" Benedict XVI and his "brilliant" pontificate.

After each vote, the Vatican will release smoke to reveal whether or not a pope has been elected. When a decision is made, white smoke will be released. New chemicals are being added this year to make the no-decision smoke jet black. There was some confusion in 2005 when black smoke did not appear very dark.

The first day "establishes the spiritual aspects of the conclave," said Matthew Bunson, a religious scholar and author of We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI. "That happens through the procession into the Sistine Chapel and the constant prayers asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

But perhaps more significantly, it clues cardinals in to who's trending.

"They learn from that first vote who the leading contenders are and what level of backing they have," said Bunson, noting that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's strong support at the outset of 2005's conclave led to him becoming Pope Benedict in just four ballots.

"If someone gets lots of votes on the first ballot, the momentum could take hold and this could be over quickly," said Thomas Reese, analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, adding that the winner will need two-thirds -- or 77 -- of the 115 votes. "On the other hand, if someone gets to 60 fast, but then stalls, that could require a lot of negotiations to see who's going to compromise on their candidate."

Reese said what partly paved the way for John Paul II's revolutionary election as a Polish pope was that votes were split between the two leading Italian cardinals, resulting in a winning third path. Although presently Milanese Cardinal Angelo Scola is often mentioned as among the leading "papabili," U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York also received his share of press of late.

But whenever the new pope is elected, spokesman Lombardi warned that it may take a while before the throngs of faithful and tourists waiting in St. Peter's Square see the new pontiff. That's because the next man to sit on the throne of St. Peter plans to stop in the Pauline Chapel to pray before alighting on the balcony to face the masses.

"It could take longer than last time," when it was almost an hour before Pope Benedict appeared, Lombardi said. "Especially if the new pope immerses himself in prayer."

Monday morning workers readied that famous balcony for its big moment, putting up massive red velvet curtains with a crane while bystanders snapped photos.

Meanwhile, deep inside the labyrinthine recesses of the powerful but troubled city-state, the nearly 100 people who will assist in the conclave - from priests to drivers - swore an oath of secrecy.

That vow echoes the elaborate technological measures being taken to prevent digital information from entering or leaving the Sistine Chapel, perhaps the world's most historic and valuable polling station. Those include the installation of cell jamming devices and even raising the floor of the 15th-century building.

What politicking does occur between balloting sessions will be contained to walks, dinners and late-night chats at the Casa Santa Marta, a five-story building inside the Vatican's imposing walls that houses all of the red-robed electorate. But when there finally is a majority vote, the world will know thanks to smoke signals.

Out of the thinnest of capped chimneys, mounted specifically for the conclave, black or white smoke will pour. Two stoves actually were installed in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave. One is for burning the ballots - previously, wet straw was added to create a blacker smoke, but the method was found lacking - and the other is for burning a special mix of chemicals that should definitively create the right color.

Far from the bustle and tourism of the Basilica, retired bus driver Pietro Boccamazzi, 77, goes to church ever day at Rome's St. Anastasia Church. "I love whoever is pope," he said, but added that an Italian pope would be best. "No disrespect disrespect to other nations. But the church is here (in Italy) for a reason."

In 2005, Benedict's winning ballot took far longer to convey than anticipated. To begin with, the white smoke looked gray. And the Vatican bells that traditionally ring in the election of a new pope stayed silent because the bell-ringer was waiting for clearance from a high-ranking official.

(USA Today)

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