A fairly large crowd of several thousand pilgrims and tourists has gathered in St. Peter's Square this morning, many of them with their eyes fixed on the tiny chimney in the corner, beside the facade of the basilica.
The mood is upbeat, despite the wet and the cold: not the kind of weather many were expecting of Rome. But this could be a time when all expectations are scuppered and a successor Peter is elected whom few observers had been predicting.
Indeed, the longer this conclave lasts (as of writing, three votes, but no election), the more likely it is that those considered to be front-runners will not be elected, and the cardinals will decide on someone "below the radar." Such is the way of this election: that if a candidate continues to be near but not quite reach the two-thirds majority needed, his votes will likely transfer to those who have been polling less, who then gather momentum.
Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI at the equivalent of this afternoon's first vote, around 5:30pm, but his election was relatively quick. Most observers are expecting a pope to be elected sometime tomorrow, possibly at the seventh vote, which would be noon tomorrow. But no one really knows.
For many in St. Peter's Square, expectations are wide and varied. "It will take several days to choose," believes Gabriele, 23, from Modena, Italy. "I think it will be [Cardinal Sean] O’Malley from Boston. He gives the impression of a simple person, and he fought against [clerical sex] abuse."
Jean Pierre, 55, from Bordeaux in France is hoping for an African pope, and he thinks the cardinal electors will fulfill that hope. "I think it will bring peace," he says. "That’s all."
Father Andy Moore, 40, from Houston is under no illusion regarding how great the challenges are confronting the next pope. "There is a lot facing [him]," he says. "Evangelization, the sex-abuse crisis; I just pray he has the spirit of Christ in his heart. That is what matters."
Alfredo, also from Texas, says: "We will need a really strong pope. Whoever the Holy Spirit sends … but a pope from the Americas would be really wonderful, too."
Many of those in St. Peter's Square just happened to be in Rome when the conclave began. "We were studying in London; we planned this trip weeks ago, and it just turned out that there was the conclave," says Nicholas from Detroit. "I would not be surprised if we have the first African pope. An American pope would be cool, but I think it is more likely to be an African or South American."
He also believes the sex-abuse scandal "is going to be dealt with one way or another (by whoever the next pope is)."
Connie, 50, from Texas is in Rome on a pilgrimage. "I think it’s marvelous," she says. "It is something I never thought I would get to see in my life. We have been planning this pilgrimage for a year, and it just happened to be now. Whoever the next pope is, I feel he will be the right one. Of course, an American would be awesome!"
After the black smoke at noon today, some of the crowd are dispersing, but many will remain. This is a chance to witness a piece of history firsthand; and yet everyone is being kept in suspense, waiting for the Holy Spirit to give the signal.
"I feel like a child on Christmas Eve, waiting eagerly for Christmas to begin," says Brother Cassian Koenemann, a Benedictine monk from St. Louis studying in Rome, "with the only difference being that I don't know when the big event will begin."