UPDATE: White smoke has poured out from the Sistine Chapel chimney in St. Peter’s Square, signaling that the conclave of cardinals has chosen a new pope.
EARLIER STORY: Cardinals remained divided over who should be pope on Wednesday after three rounds of voting, an indication that disagreements remain about the direction of the Catholic Church following the upheaval unleashed by Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation.
In the second day of the conclave, thick black smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, prompting sighs of disappointment from the thousands of people gathered in a rain-soaked and chilly St. Peter’s Square.
“I’m not happy to see black smoke. We all want white,” said the Rev. ThankGod Okoroafor, a Nigerian priest studying theology at Holy Cross University in Rome. “But maybe it means that the cardinals need to take time, not to make a mistake in the choice.”
The Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi insisted that the continued balloting was part of the natural course of the election and didn’t signal divisions among cardinals. He noted that only once in the past century had a pope been elected on the third ballot: Pope Pius XII, elected on the eve of World War II.
“This is very normal,” he said. “It’s not a sign of particular divisions within the college, but rather of a normal process of discernment.”
A winner must receive 77 votes, or two-thirds of the 115, to be named pope.
That said, a conclave has rarely before taken place against the backdrop of a papal resignation and revelations of mismanagement, petty bickering, infighting and corruption in the Holy See bureaucracy. Those revelations, exposed by the leaks of papal documents last year, have divided the College of Cardinals into camps seeking a radical reform of the Holy See’s governance and those defending the status quo.
After the third ballot, the cardinals broke for lunch at the Vatican hotel and were returning for another two rounds of voting Wednesday afternoon.
The drama — with stage sets by Michelangelo and an outcome that is anyone’s guess — is playing out against the backdrop of the church’s need both for a manager who can clean up an ungovernable Vatican bureaucracy and a pastor who can revive Catholicism in a time of growing secularism.
The difficulty in finding both attributes in one man, some analysts say, means that the world should brace for a long conclave — or at least one longer than the four ballots it took to elect Benedict in 2005.
“We have not had a conclave over five days since 1831,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican,” a bible of sorts for understanding the Vatican bureaucracy. “So if they are in there over five days, we know they are in trouble; they are having a hard time forming consensus around a particular person.”
The names mentioned most often as “papabile” — a cardinal who has the stuff of a pope — include Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, an intellect in the vein of Benedict but with a more outgoing personality, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s important bishops’ office who is also scholarly but reserved like Benedict.
Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer is liked by the Vatican bureaucracy but not by all of his countrymen. And Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary has the backing of European cardinals who have twice elected him as head of the European bishops’ conference.
On the more pastoral side is Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the favorite of the Italian press, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the back-slapping, outgoing archbishop of New York who has admitted himself that his Italian is pretty bad — a drawback for a job that is conducted almost exclusively in the language.
The American candidates, however, did get a boost of sorts on Wednesday: President Barack Obama, who has clashed with American bishops over his health care mandate, indicated the Catholic Church could certainly tolerate a superpower pope since Catholic bishops in the U.S. “don’t seem to be taking orders from me.”
In an interview with ABC News, he said an American pope would preside just as effectively as a leader of the Catholic church from any other country.
Lombardi said it was a “good hypothesis” that the pope — whoever it is — would be installed next Tuesday, on the feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of the universal church. The installation Mass is attended by heads of state from around the world, requiring at least a few days’ notice.
Thousands of people braved a chilly rain on Wednesday morning to watch the 6-foot- (2-meter-) high copper chimney on the chapel roof for the smoke signals telling them whether the cardinals had settled on a choice. Nuns recited the rosary, while children splashed in puddles.
After the smoke poured out, the crowds began to dissipate, though a few hangers-on appeared ready to wait out the afternoon balloting.
“The more we wait, the better chance we have of having a surprise,” said Ludovic de Vernejouls, a 21-year-old Parisian studying architecture in Rome.
Unlike the confusion that reigned during the 2005 conclave, the smoke this time around has been clearly black — thanks to special smoke flares akin to those used in soccer matches or protests that were lit in the chapel ovens to make the burned ballots black.
The Vatican on Wednesday divulged the secret recipe used: potassium perchlorate, anthracene, which is a derivative of coal tar, and sulfur for the black smoke; potassium chlorate, lactose and a pine resin for the white smoke.
The chemicals are contained in five units of a cartridge that is placed inside the stove of the Sistine Chapel. When activated, the five blocks ignite one after another for about a minute apiece, creating the steady stream of smoke that accompanies the natural smoke from the burned ballot papers.
Despite the great plumes of smoke that poured out of the chimney, neither the Sistine frescoes nor the cardinals inside the chapel suffered any smoke damage, Lombardi said.
The cardinals were spending their free time inbetween votes sequestered in the Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel, an impersonal modern hotel on the edge of the Vatican gardens. They have no access to television, newspapers, cellphones or computers, and the hotel staff has taken an oath of secrecy to not reveal anything they see or hear.
The actual vote takes place in far more evocative surroundings: the Sistine Chapel frescoed by Michelangelo in the 16th century with scenes of “Creation” and “The Last Judgment.”