Roman Catholic cardinals have begun a secret conclave in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel to elect a successor to the late Pope John Paul the Second. They cast their first vote on Monday, but black smoke emerging the chimney of the chapel signified that they did not reach agreement in their first vote. The cardinals have closed themselves off from the rest of the world, until they have chosen a new pontiff.
In a centuries-old tradition, the 115 cardinals from 52 countries filed into the Sistine Chapel. A choir sang prayers in Latin, asking that the multiple saints of the church pray for them as they undertake the daunting task of finding a man to fill John Paul's shoes.
One by one, the cardinals were sworn to secrecy and took their seats in the chapel dominated by Michaelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment. Choosing a pope is the most important job a cardinal faces. This is the first time that all but two of those present in the conclave will make their momentous choice.
Hours before the conclave began, the cardinals attended a public mass in Saint Peter's Basilica to ask for divine guidance. Presiding over the mass was the dean of the college of cardinals, Germany's
He urged his colleagues to choose a pontiff who will defend the church's traditional doctrine against such modern trends as relativism -- the ideology that there are no absolute truths.
He says the world is moving toward a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as being certain, and whose only goal is to satisfy individual egos and desires.
Cardinal Ratzinger, who was John Paul's doctrinal watchdog, is mentioned among the late pope's possible successors. But most experts doubt that the 78-year-old theologian, whose strict orthodoxy has upset many Catholics, will be able to muster the 77 votes needed to become pontiff.
Whoever is chosen to lead the world's one-billion Catholics will have to make his own mark on the church after one of the most dynamic pontificates in history. He will face challenges ranging from poverty and AIDS in the developing world to a decline in religious faith in developed countries.
Many cardinals are believed to want a pope who will make the church more appealing to young people, while allowing power to be shared between the Vatican and bishops around the world.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, in charge of the Vatican's relations with other Christian churches, says no single candidate has yet emerged.
"There are a lot of changes to face, and it will not be easy to find the right person who can respond to all the problems."
There will be four votes on Tuesday and on subsequent days, until a new pope is elected. Most experts believe the conclave will last between two and five days.