Rome conclave: Uncertainty after first day's voting

People wait on St Peter's Square for result of first day's voting
Image caption People drifted off St Peter's Square after the vote proved inconclusive

When the smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel chimney on Tuesday evening it, was, inevitably, black.

Emphatically black, pouring out of the floodlit chimney stack before disappearing from view.

The crowd of pilgrims holding vigil faithfully on St Peter’s Square below followed its example, drifting away into the chilly Roman night.

After day one of voting in the secret conclave, no pope has been elected.

These are uncertain times for the Vatican and the wider Catholic Church.

Long shortlist

Eight years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger solidified his papal credentials in the Mass for the election of the Pope with a resounding homily against the "dictatorship of relativism".

It was fiery stuff, and he was picked by his cardinal-elector peers to lead the Church’s 1.2bn faithful little more than a day later.

The dean of the college of cardinals who gave the homily at the corresponding Mass on Tuesday was the Italian Angelo Sodano who, at 85, is too old to vote and not seen as a serious contender for the role of pontiff.

The cardinal took a more measured tone as he made a call for unity, for charity, for love. And while his sermon outlined the qualities the cardinal-electors would be looking for in a new leader - a pastor, an evangeliser, an apostle - it was no campaign speech.

These past two weeks, there have been 10 general congregations - gatherings of cardinals from around the world to discuss the priorities for the Church and the skills needed to lead it.

There has been no shortage of opinions, with 160 so-called interventions as cardinals outlined their priorities.

The list of papabili – or contenders for the papacy - remains long. There are frontrunners, of course, but they number more than a dozen and come from all corners of the world.

No one candidate stands out, which could turn the election into a complicated Venn diagram as cardinals seek to find a man who satisfies the priorities of different camps.

Image caption A swift result at the conclave is not predicted

'Siamo confusi'

Ironically, perhaps now that the cardinals have been locked into the conclave and shut off from the outside world they will feel freer than they have done these past two weeks.

Quiet discussions held over meals at the secluded Domus Sanctae Marthae hotel where the electors are staying are unlikely to be leaked to the Italian media.

And cardinals take the threat of excommunication more seriously, perhaps, than translators or support staff on hand during the wider meetings ahead of the Sistine Chapel lockdown.

That sense of freedom could help produce openness during the balloting process. Plus the solemn process of voting beneath Michelangelo’s austere Last Judgement might help to focus minds.

However, analysts do not predict the swift result of 2005. Jesuit theologian Thomas Reese told the BBC he expected a protracted conclave that could produce a surprise.

Vatican watcher Rocco Palmo described the election as “a crapshoot – it’s anyone’s game".

Perhaps the English Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor summed it up best when he said, frowning as he walked across St Peter’s Square on Monday night: “Siamo confusi” - “We are confused.”

One thing is certain: Those looking for changes when it comes to the Church's teaching on sexual ethics - on abortion, for example, or homosexuality, or condoms, or women priests - are likely to be disappointed.

Of the 115 electors, 60% were picked by Benedict XVI, and the rest by his predecessor John Paul II. The next pope may not be a clone of the last two, but his views on major doctrinal issues will be similar.

Room of tears

Whoever gets the nod from his cardinal confreres will have a tough job on his hands.

From handling the ongoing fallout of the clerical sex abuse crisis to getting to grips with the controversial Vatican Bank, and from combating chronic Vatican mismanagement to countering the falling numbers of both shepherds and sheep in his global flock, the pope’s inbox will be brimming.

It is fitting that the room in which he will don his white vestments after being elected as the 266th pontiff is known as the Room of Tears.

As the new pope contemplates the task ahead of him, the world will be contemplating the smoke wafting from the rusty chimney on the Sistine Chapel’s roof.

It will be white, and if Tuesday evening’s black smoke show is anything to go by, it will be decisively white.

But while a pope may have been chosen, what that white smoke will mean for the future of the Catholic Church remains uncertain.