VATICAN CITY – Black smoke streamed out of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney Monday evening, as the most widely watched papal election in history got under way.

The age-old signal, difficult to discern as dusk settled over St. Peter’s Square, indicated that the 115 cardinals gathered in the chapel had taken their first vote but failed to reach a two-thirds’ majority.

And though election on the first ballot was highly unlikely, an excited crowd in St. Peter’s Square groaned a little when the result became clear. Church law calls for four more ballots today, if necessary.

As they prepared Monday to undertake the monumental task of replacing Pope John Paul II, the cardinals conducted two rituals redolent of centuries past.

In the morning they celebrated Mass in Latin in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the afternoon, they processed from the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace into the Sistine Chapel, where they swore an oath of fidelity to the laws of the church.

The ceremonies provided little insight into the thinking of the cardinals, who have kept their reflections mostly private over the last week.

But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the college of cardinals and one of only two in the conclave who took part in the 1978 voting, did use his role as celebrant of the Mass to deliver a vehement homily outlining issues important to him.

“Having a clear faith, according to the creed of the church, is often labeled as fundamentalism,” said Ratzinger, who recently released a book calling for Europe to return to its Christian roots. “A dictatorship of relativism is being formed, one that recognizes nothing as definitive and that has as its measure only the self and its desires.”

“An adult faith does not follow the waves of fashion and the latest novelties,” Ratzinger continued.

Few of the cardinals arrayed before the German cardinal would have disagreed with the analysis, and he introduced it in the context of the day’s Scripture readings.

But by singling out the need to defend the doctrine of the church against modern ideologies, hours before the conclave began, the man viewed by many as a leading papal candidate appeared to be signaling his priorities.

Whether he intended to use his chair at St. Peter’s as a bully pulpit for the conclave, his straightforward remarks fanned the speculation that has filled a week of unprecedented media coverage leading up to the conclave.

Later, television audiences worldwide and hundreds of faithful and curious watched jumbo screens in St. Peter’s Square to see a peculiar innovation that might be called “Chimney Cam”: live, close-up video of the stovepipe used by the cardinals to signal the outcome of their voting, with black smoke for inconclusive votes and white smoke for the successful election of a new pope. This time, the smoke was black.

Louis Keeler, 72, of Cherry Hill, N.J., said he and his wife were waiting in the square to watch the work of his cousin, Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler.

“Look at all the people,” he marveled. “I think John Paul got to them somehow.”

He was not the only one at St. Peter’s whose mind was on the late pope.

Domenico Starnelli, 34, of Rome was standing near the front of the crowd and felt a surge from behind as the first wisps of smoke came from the chimney and were misread by many as white smoke.

“It was at last a happy moment, after all these days of sadness here. We felt it was a happy moment for John Paul II as well,” Starnelli said. “Then we realized it was black. But we will be back.”

Chicago Tribune staff reporters Manya Brachear and Alessandra Maggiorani contributed to this report.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): pope

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): conclave

AP-NY-04-18-05 1604EDT

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