Black smoke poured from the specially built chimney on top of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel last night in a sign that the 115 red-robed cardinals of the conclave had failed to elect a new Pope on the first day of voting.
Darkness had already fallen when the smoke appeared. It was greeted with some shrieks from a few hundred rain-drenched faithful, vastly outnumbered by the world's media, who looked on from under their umbrellas in St Peter's Square.
After a disastrous decade for the Catholic Church, which has been embroiled in clerical sex abuse scandals and accusations of corruption in the Vatican administration, the cardinals must choose a figure who can inject new hope into the church.
Yesterday, after the Sistine Chapel had been swept for listening devices and laced with signal jammers to block any contact with the outside world, each cardinal swore a solemn oath with their hand on the Bible not to reveal the secrets of their deliberations or face being cast out from the church.
The head of ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, then addressed all those not associated with the conclave with the words "Extra Omnes" (all out), to enable the secretive process of the conclave to start.
As all of the 115 cardinals are theoretically candidates for the papacy and the winner must receive two-thirds of the votes, the failure to reach a decision was not a surprise.
Yesterday's vote should give an indication of who the key candidates may be. The conclave will meet again today, and vote twice in the morning and evening until a decision is reached. When it is, the smoke will be white.
Last night, bookies and Vatican insiders were tipping the leading Italian candidate as the most likely to win, though the delay has led to fresh rumours of infighting among the princes of the church.
Angelo Scola, the 71-year-old Archbishop of Milan, was said yesterday to have garnered up to 50 votes of the 77 needed to become the 266th Pope, after several days of discussions between cardinals that preceded the conclave.
Three other cardinals, Odillo Scherer of Brazil, Timothy Dolan of New York and Marc Ouellet of Canada, were said to be the other front-runners, each with 10 to 15 firm supporters.
Many pundits, however, say the unprecedented pressures on the church hierarchy – brought not only by a series of scandals but also by the diverging interests of Catholics in first and third-world countries – mean the result of the election is difficult to predict.
Pressure is being exerted from some quarters for there to be an Italian Pope, but the names of North American and Latin American cardinals are also on people's lips – as is that of Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.
Several cardinals had used Twitter to say goodbye to their online flock before the conclave began. "Last tweet before conclave: May Our Father hear and answer with love and mercy all prayers and sacrifices offered for fruitful outcome. God bless!" said Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa.
At a Mass in St Peter's Basilica yesterday, perhaps with the thoughts of the most recent spats fresh in their memory, the cardinals prayed for unity in the church.
With the Holy See still reeling from scandals under Pope Benedict's pontificate – from accusations of clerical paedophilia to infighting and corruption – the church's 1.2 billion members are also likely to be praying that the cardinals find focus in the coming days.