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Black smoke rises from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City indicating that no decision has been made after the first day of voting for the election of a new pope, March 12, 2013. Roman Catholic Cardinals started a conclave on Tuesday to elect a successor to Pope Benedict, who abdicated last month.TONY GENTILE/Reuters

On a cold and exceedingly wet day in Rome, St. Peter's Square turned into a sea of umbrellas as thousands of "chimney watchers" waited for the first cloud of smoke from the pipe atop the Sistine Chapel.

The visitors – pilgrims, tourists, the few Italian Catholics still obsessed with the Vatican – came even though they knew the smoke would almost certainly emerge black, the signal of an indecisive vote from the 115 elector cardinals locked inside the chapel.

And it did, meaning the search for a new pope will continue Wednesday and every day thereafter (with a pause for up to one day after each three days of inconclusive voting) until white smoke emerges, the Vatican's way of saying that it has found its man.

The cardinals, among them Canada's Marc Ouellet, one of the front-runners, entered the chapel about 4:30 p.m. local time. The chapel's heavy wooden doors were slammed shut an hour later, sealing off the cardinals and a few assistants from the outside world. Thick black smoke billowed out 70 minutes after that, at least half an hour later than expected.

On Wednesday, the cardinals will hold two ballots in the morning and two in the afternoon. The Vatican press officers have said they fully expect a new pope by Friday – no conclave since the start of the last century has lasted more than five days and a few have wound up in two or three days.

The Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, of Milan, went into the conclave the apparent front-runner, though not the runaway favourite in a tight field. Italy's Corriere Della Sera newspaper said that as many as 50 cardinals were backing him, though that number could prove meaningless in subsequent votes as new alliances are formed or shed. In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland was clearly not the front-runner going into the conclave. Eight ballots later, he was Pope John Paul II.

But Cardinal Scola's chances of replacing Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned on Feb. 28, may be hurt by his association, however tenuous, with a scandal in Lombardy, in northern Italy, where his diocese is based. The Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday that police conducted a series of dawn raids on health-care facilities in Lombardi. The police said in a statement that they were looking for evidence of "corruption linked to tenders by, and supplies to, hospitals."

Cardinal Scola was a friend of Roberto Formigoni, who has been running the Lombardy health-care system for almost two decades. Mr. Formigoni was also a member of a lay group called the Communion and Liberation movement. Cardinal Scola at one point was one of the movement's highest-profile advocates, but distanced himself from it last year.

As of Tuesday, Cardinal Scola remained the top name among the betting sites, followed by Cardinals Odilo Scherer of Brazil, Peter Turkson of Ghana and Cardinal Ouellet. The man who slipped the most in the last day or so was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state. On the rise is the plain-talking, media-friendly Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, though few Vatican watchers think an American cardinal will emerge as pope.

Tuesday began with a pre-conclave mass in St. Peter's Basilica for the cardinals, who were making their last public appearances before being shielded from the outside world while they vote. Visitors to the packed church were treated to a spectacle of colour and music.

Making her first visit to Rome, Maureen Postance, a retired nurse who lives near Oxford, England, could not believe her luck. Her trip had not been planned to coincide with the cardinals' conclave and there she was, watching the start of the premature election triggered last month by the unexpected resignation of Benedict. "It's very exciting to be here at the right time," she said. "It's fabulous. The costumes give you a sense of the importance. I love the ceremony and pageantry of it all."

The homily was given by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals. He is the man who, some time later this week, will appear on the balcony on the façade of St. Peter's Basilica, overlooking the vast square, and announce "Habemus papum" – "We have a pope." The new pope will then appear on the balcony and a new era in the church will begin.

Cardinal Sodano's message was one of love and unity, reminding the audience that "the fundamental attitude of the pastors of the church is love. It is this love that urges us to offer our own lives for our brothers and sisters."

There was a message for the next pope. He said "the last popes have been builders of so many good initiatives for people and for the international community, tirelessly promoting justice and peace. Let us pray the future pope may continue this unceasing work on the world level."