Cardinals in secret conclave failed twice on Wednesday morning to elect a new pope, as black smoke over the Sistine Chapel showed ballots on the first full day of voting were inconclusive.
After an inconclusive first vote on Tuesday night, the 115 cardinal electors should hold another two ballots later on Wednesday after praying for inspiration from God for a choice that can lead the Roman Catholic Church out of crisis.
Having spent the night closeted in a nearby guesthouse, the cardinals attended Mass in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace and returned to the Renaissance splendour of the Sistine Chapel to hold the two morning ballots.
They face a tough task in finding one of their number capable of facing a string of scandals and internal strife which are thought to have contributed to Pope Benedict's decision in February to become the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.
A chimney above the chapel, where the cardinals are meeting beneath Michelangelo's luminous fresco of the Last Judgment, will signal a decision with white smoke. More black smoke will indicate no choice has been made.
With several leading candidates, or "papabili", the cardinals are unlikely to reach a decision on who will lead the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics before Wednesday afternoon, with many experts forecasting white smoke to emerge on Thursday.
"A new pope by tomorrow," was the headline in Wednesday's La Stampa newspaper after days of feverish speculation about the most likely new pontiff in Italian media.
Only one man since the start of the 20th century, Pius XII in 1939, was elected within three ballots, with seven ballots on average required over the last nine conclaves. Benedict was clear frontrunner in 2005 and elected after only four ballots.
Pilgrims and tourists began arriving in St Peter's Square early in the morning despite heavy rain, hoping to get a glimpse of history by watching for white smoke from the chapel chimney.
When the new pope is elected the bells of St. Peter's will also ring.
"It's a wonderful time, a historical moment," said Monsignor Ronny Jenkins, General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was among hundreds waiting under umbrellas in the square outside the huge church. "It's very unique.
"It's an incredible moment, but we want the rain to go away," he added with a laugh.
CARDINALS SHUT INSIDE CHAPEL
The cardinals were shut inside late on Tuesday afternoon for the first time, after a day of religious pomp and prayer to prepare for the task. As expected, black smoke emerged after their first vote, about two hours after they began the conclave.
The initial vote was seen as a way of filtering the choice down to frontrunners for discussions among the supporters of the various papabili in the following days.
No hint is expected to emerge before the pope is chosen. The Vatican has taken precautions, including electronic jamming devices, to prevent any leaks from inside the conclave.
The new pope will take up a burden that Benedict declared in February was beyond his physical capabilities.
The Church is reeling from a child abuse scandal and the "Vatileaks" case in which Benedict's butler revealed documents alleging corruption and in-fighting inside the Curia, or central bureaucracy. It has also been shaken by rivalry from other churches, the advance of secularism, especially in its European heartland, and problems in the running of the Vatican bank.
The former head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, is attending the conclave despite calls for him to stay away because of a sex abuse scandal that led to his censure by his successor Archbishop Jose Gomez in January. He was stripped of all public and administrative duties as punishment.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the victims in four sex abuse cases said the diocese, Mahony and an ex-priest had agreed to pay nearly $10 million to settle the cases. Mahony was accused of helping a confessed paedophile priest escape prosecution.
Frontrunners at the conclave include Italy's Angelo Scola - who would return the papacy to traditional Italian hands after 35 years of the German Benedict XVI and Polish John Paul II - and Brazilian Odilo Scherer - who would be the first non-European pope since Syrian-born Gregory III, nearly 1,300 years ago.
In preparatory meetings before the conclave, the cardinals seemed divided between those who believe the new pontiff must be a strong manager to get the dysfunctional bureaucracy under control and others who are looking more for a proven pastoral figure to revitalise their faith across the globe.
Milan Archbishop Scola, who has managed two big Italian dioceses without being part of the Vatican's central administration, could be well-placed to understand the Curia's Byzantine politics and introduce swift reform.
Scherer is said to be the Curia's favoured candidate and would satisfy those who want a non-European, reflecting the future of a Church shifting towards the developing world.
A host of other candidates from numerous nations have also been mentioned as potential popes - including U.S. cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley, Canada's Marc Ouellet and Argentina's Leonardo Sandri.
All the prelates meeting in the Sistine Chapel were appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, and the next pontiff will almost certainly pursue their fierce defence of traditional moral teachings.
On Tuesday they retired to a Vatican guesthouse, where more elaborate precautions have been taken to avoid leaks. This will be their home throughout the conclave.
Some cardinals speculated this week that it might take four to five days to pick the new pontiff because of the difficulty of the task and the number of strong candidates.
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.