VATICAN CITY - Black smoke poured from the Sistine Chapel's chimney Monday evening, signaling that the cardinals sequestered inside for the first papal conclave of the new millennium failed to elect a new pope.
The black smoke emanating shortly after 8 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT) meant the 115 voting cardinal "princes" of the church would retire for the night and return to the chapel Tuesday morning for more balloting in their search for a successor to Pope John Paul II.
If two morning ballots fail to produce a pope, the cardinals could hold two more votes Tuesday afternoon.
Some 40,000 people who packed St. Peter's Square to stare at the stovepipe jutting from the chapel roof shouted, "It's black! It's black!" and snapped photos with their cell phones.
White smoke will tell the world that the church's 265th pontiff has been chosen to succeed John Paul, who died April 2 at age 84.
The cardinals, from six continents and representing 52 countries, began their secret deliberations late in the afternoon after the ceremonial closing of the massive doors of the chapel, which is decorated with frescoes by Michelangelo and wired with electronic jamming devices to thwart eavesdropping.
The excitement built as darkness set in and pilgrims watched close-ups of the chimney on giant video screens in the square.
As the smoke began pouring from the chimney, shouts of "e bianco! e bianco!" - "It's white! It's white!" - rippled through the crowd. But the cries quickly gave way to sighs of disappointment as the smoke blackened.
"At first it seemed that we had a new pope, so I had a lot of emotions. But of course we didn't really expect to have a pope on the first day," said Alessia Di Caro, a 23-year-old university student.
There was initial confusion when a Vatican Radio commentator said, "It seems white," as the first puffs emerged from the chimney. But as thick, darker smoke followed, the station proclaimed it black.
"It looks like the stove wasn't working well at first," an announcer joked a few minutes later.
Before shutting themselves inside, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led his fellow cardinals in reading aloud an oath of secrecy. One by one, they then filed up to a Book of the Gospels, placed their right hands on it and pronounced a second oath to keep their sessions secret.
Ratzinger's admonition read, in part: "In a particular way, we promise and swear to observe with the greatest fidelity and with all persons, clerical or lay, secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting; we promise and swear not to break this secret in any way ..."
Ratzinger - a powerful Vatican official often mentioned as a leading candidate for pope - began by reciting a prayer at the palace. The cardinals chanted the Litany of the Saints as they made the short walk to the chapel, led by altar servers carrying two long, lit white candles and a metal crucifix.
In a stately and colorful procession carried live on television, they walked past a pair of Swiss Guards in red plumed hats standing at attention at the entrance to the chapel and took two steps into the voting area, where special devices were installed beneath a false floor to block cell phone calls or bugs in an unprecedented effort to secure the proceedings.
Most of the cardinals were clad in crimson vestments and hats except for two Eastern Rite prelates - Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine and Ignace Moussa I Daoud of Syria - who wore black. Ratzinger entered the chapel last - an honor bestowed upon the dean of the College of Cardinals.
Before the procession, Ratzinger asked for prayers from the church that a pastor fit to lead all of Christ's flock would be elected.
"May the Lord lead our steps on the path of truth, so that through the intercession of the blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, and of all the saints, we may always do that which is pleasing to him," he said in Latin.
With Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" as a backdrop behind the altar, depicting a muscular Jesus amid masses of people ascending to heaven and falling to hell, the cardinals took their assigned places behind their name placards, with a copy of the conclave ritual on their desks.
They then placed their red, three-cornered square birettas on the tables, leaving only their crimson skullcaps on their heads.
"I slept well, and now my ideas are clear," French Cardinal Paul Poupard said as he headed into a special pre-conclave Mass held earlier Monday at St. Peter's Basilica. "I have realized the seriousness of the election. The Holy Spirit will do the rest."
In his homily at the Mass, Ratzinger, who presided from the main altar usually reserved for a pope, generated applause from fellow cardinals as he asked God to give the church "a pastor according to his own heart, a pastor who guides us to knowledge in Christ, to his love and to true joy."
But in unusually blunt terms, he made clear what type of pastor that should be: one who should not allow "a dictatorship of relativism" - the ideology that there are no absolute truths - to take deeper root.
Outside the basilica, the faithful thronged the square, eager to bear witness to history in the making.
"I'm excited just to be here," said Sister Maria Grazia, an Italian nun from the order of St. Joseph of the Mountain. It was the fourth time she had come to the square to witness a papal election.
"I feel really cool being here," said Kathy Mullen, 49, of Beverly, Mass. "The last pope was very special, so I don't know how they're going to pick another one. I will be here in the square because it's so historic."
The cardinals will hold up to four rounds of voting - two in the morning, two in the afternoon - a day until a candidate gets two-thirds support: 77 votes. If no one is elected after three days, voting pauses for up to one day.
If the cardinals remain deadlocked late in the second week of voting, they can vote to change the rules so a winner can be elected with a simple majority: 58 votes.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said smoke from burned ballot papers enhanced by special chemicals likely could be seen at about noon (6 a.m. EDT) and about 7 p.m. (1 p.m. EDT) on each day of voting by the cardinal electors, all of whom are under age 80. At some point soon after the new pope is chosen, the Vatican also will ring bells.
The cardinals spent their first night in the super-secure Domus Sanctae Marthae, a $20 million hotel that John Paul had constructed inside Vatican City so they could rest in comfort in private rooms between voting sessions.
Conspicuously missing from their quarters were cell phones, newspapers, radios, TVs and Internet connections - all banned by John Paul to minimize the chances of news influencing their secret deliberations and to prevent leaks to the outside world. The Vatican's security squad swept the chapel for listening devices, and cooks, maids, elevator operators and drivers were sworn to secrecy, with excommunication the punishment for any indiscretions.
No conclave in the past century has lasted more than five days, and the election that made Cardinal Karol Wojtyla pope in October 1978 took eight ballots over three days.
Cardinals faced a choice that boiled down to two options: an older, skilled administrator who could serve as a "transitional" pope while the church absorbs John Paul's 26-year legacy, or a younger dynamic pastor and communicator - perhaps from Latin America or elsewhere in the developing world where the church is growing - who could build on the late pontiff's popularity over a quarter-century of globe-trotting.
The issues sure to figure prominently in the conclave include containing the priest sex-abuse scandals that have cost the church millions in settlements in the United States; coping with a chronic shortage of priests and nuns in the West; halting the stream of people leaving a church whose teachings they no longer find relevant; and improving dialogue with the Islamic world.
"We are praying together with the church for everything to get better," said Sister Annonciata, 42, a Rwandan nun from the Little Sisters of Jesus order who was on the square Monday.