VATICAN CITY -- Thousands of the faithful and the curious filled St. Peter's Square on Wednesday evening, hoping for the white smoke that signals a selection.
The morning session held by the 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church yielded only black smoke, which billowed from a makeshift copper chimney atop the Sistine Chapel after noon, signaling that they had again failed to muster majority support for a successor to Benedict XVI and that balloting would continue until they do.
A first vote ended inconclusively on Tuesday, and the inky black smoke at midday Wednesday indicated an absence of consensus among the cardinals in two subsequent ballots, over what kind of pope they want to confront the pressing and sometimes conflicting demands for change in the church after years of scandal.
"It's more or less what we expected," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said of the first three ballots. He said the continuing voting was a "normal process of discernment," not a sign of divisions. In relatively recent times, he said, only one pope was chosen as quickly as the third ballot -- Pius XII, whose papacy spanned World War II and lasted from 1939 to 1958.
Unusually, President Obama pitched in to the papal debate, promoting the idea of an American pope.
In an interview broadcast on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said an American pope would "preside just as effectively as a Polish pope or an Italian pope or a Guatemalan pope."
The president dismissed the idea that an American pope would be perceived as too tied to the government of the United States. "I don't know if you've checked lately, but the Conference of Catholic Bishops here in the United States don't seem to be taking orders from me," Mr. Obama told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in the interview.
Mr. Obama said he hoped that whoever becomes pope will maintain what he called the "central message" of the Gospel.
"That is that we treat everybody as children of God and that we love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them," Mr. Obama said. "I think that a pope that, you know, is that clarion voice on behalf of those issues will, you know, will have a tremendous and positive impact on the world."
Voting is set to continue -- with up to two rounds each morning and afternoon -- until a candidate receives a two-thirds majority, or 77 votes.
At that point, white smoke will billow forth from the chapel, telling the world's one billion-plus Catholics that they have a new leader, and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will peal.
On Wednesday, the first full day of the conclave, the prelates celebrated a morning Mass in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace before moving to the Sistine Chapel to deliberate and vote under its 16th-century frescoes by Michelangelo. Outside, pilgrims and sightseers sheltered under umbrellas in the piazza starting early in the rainy morning, hoping to see an unequivocal signal from the burning ballot papers.
The crowd soon thickened, with many people staring toward the chimney with its simple cover or looking at it on huge television screens. Some closed their eyes and clasped their hands around rosaries in prayer.
At the last papal election, in 2005, the color was indeterminate in an early round, prompting confusion. But, on Tuesday and Wednesday, the smoke was unmistakably black.
Technology helped, too. By the time the first smoke emerged, at 7:41 p.m. on Tuesday, it was dark outside. But giant screens in St. Peter's Square showed the smokestack clearly.
The Vatican has given details of how the black smoke is generated, saying that, since 2005, a secondary device alongside the traditional ballot-burning stove generates colored smoke from different chemical compounds. Both devices feed into stovepipes that join up as a single smokestack on the Sistine Chapel roof.
For black smoke, the Vatican Information Service said, the compound blends potassium perchlorate, anthracene and sulfur. White smoke heralding a new pope comes from a mixture of potassium chlorate, lactose and rosin, "a natural amber resin obtained from conifers."
Before 2005, the black smoke was "obtained by using smoke black or pitch and the white smoke by using wet straw," the Vatican said.
The inconclusive outcome of the early balloting had been widely predicted. No front-runner had emerged in the same way as in 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to become Benedict XVI on the fourth round of voting.
For decades before his election, the average number of voting rounds was higher, around seven, while no conclave since the early 20th century has lasted more than five days.
Benedict resigned last month, citing failing powers and infirmity, the first pope to do so in six centuries.
That paved the way for the voting in the Sistine Chapel, whose secrecy shields the cardinals' deliberations from outside scrutiny. But it is also designed to protect cardinals from earthly influence as they seek divine guidance.
Those influences seemed potentially acute on Wednesday for at least one cardinal elector inside the Sistine Chapel -- Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles.
Even as the prelates weighed their options late Tuesday, news reports from California said the archdiocese, the cardinal himself and an ex-priest had reach a settlement of almost $10 million in four child sexual abuse cases, according to the victims' lawyers.
The agreement offered eloquent testimony to the sexual, financial mismanagement and other crises facing Benedict's successor.
Cardinal Mahony, who retired less than two years ago as the leader of the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the United States, was removed from all public duties by his successor, Archbishop José H. Gomez, last month as the church complied with a court order to release thousands of pages of internal documents that show how the cardinal shielded priests who sexually abused children.
His presence contrasted with the fate of Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who announced his resignation last month after being accused of "inappropriate acts" with priests and said he would not attend the conclave. The timing of his announcement -- a day after news reports of alleged abuse appeared in Britain -- suggested that the Vatican had encouraged the cardinal to stay away.
When asked about criticism of some cardinals by advocates for the victims of clerical sex abuse, Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the group SNAP -- Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests -- was taking advantage of the attention focused on the conclave to reap publicity.
Prelates including Cardinal Mahony "have given their answers, have given their explanations," he said. "These cardinals are people we should esteem" and they have the "right to enter the conclave," he said.
Father Lombardi also said there were no plans for Benedict to attend the inaugural Mass of the new pope. As for the potential date of that ceremony, he said Tuesday -- the feast day of St. Joseph -- would be a "good hypothesis."
Daniel J. Wakin reported from Vatican City, and Alan Cowell from London. Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.