(Vatican Radio) There was no doubt about it: it was shortly after 7:40 pm Tuesday evening in Rome that the charcoal black smoke came billowing out of the smokestack above the Sistine Chapel, signalling that Cardinals meeting in day one of their conclave were unsuccessful in electing a new pope.
Out in St. Peter’s square under dark and heavy clouds, hundreds had gathered with umbrellas aloft to gaze upwards at the chimney in the hopes of being among the first to catch a glimpse of the smoke: white indicating the Cardinals had chosen a Pontiff; black, confirming that they had not found sufficient consensus for any one candidate.
Bright spotlights were trained on the smokestack to illuminate the smoke against the thick backdrop of darkness and inclement weather.
The 115 Cardinal electors had entered the Sistine Chapel at about 4:30 local time and opened the conclave by taking a solemn oath of fidelity and secrecy. After prayer and meditation and after the last of the non-electors had left the chapel, the senior Cardinal responsible for the proceedings, Giovanni Battista Re, asked his fellow Cardinals to proceed with the voting for the 265thSuccessor of Peter.
Beginning Wednesday morning and for each subsequent day of the conclave, the Cardinal electors will be expected to vote in two morning and two afternoon ballots each day. The two morning or the two afternoon ballots are burned together so there will only be two smoke signals per day: one sometime around noon, the other at about 7 p.m. local time.
Of course, if a pope is elected in the morning’s first ballot, people can expect to see white smoke billow forth between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m. The same holds true for the first afternoon ballot: should a pontiff be elected then, white smoke should be visible between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m.
Then, the real suspense begins: who has been elected Pope? Typically, it takes about forty minutes between the time the new Pope must accept the office, change into white vestments and hear the Cardinals pledge their obedience to him before we finally hear the words, “Habemus Papam” from the central loggia of St. Peter’s basilica.