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Black smoke on first day leaves faithful waiting for decision on new pope

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 12:08 a.m.

VATICAN CITY — A chilly rain alternating between hail and drizzle didn't dampen Sister Mercy McDunnough's spirits.

She was excited and moved, she said, to stand with other blue-and-gray habited nuns in St. Peter's Square, awaiting the election of a pope by Roman Catholic cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel.

“We're ready for the Holy Father to come,” said the 45-year-old nun of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of the Matara order.

But as night fell and excitement rose among the square's growing crowd, black smoke poured from the chapel's rust-colored chimney — indicating that the cardinals had not reached a consensus on their first vote.

“Oh, that's too bad,” whispered Sister Mercy.

Few of the Catholic faithful who gathered here on Tuesday expected a decision on the first day of the cardinals' conclave. Yet many said they came anyway, to be part of something larger than themselves.

The day began with a Mass for the 115 cardinals voting on a successor to Benedict XVI, the first pope to resign in six centuries. Afterward, the cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel to begin their sequestered discussions and secret balloting — a process that has changed only a little since 1059.

Outside, Catholics stood for hours under darkened skies, praying and waiting for news of the church's 266th pontiff.

One man, barefoot and wearing a hooded burlap sackcloth, knelt on the wet cobblestones as rain poured down.

Sister Mercy and other Servants of the Lord nuns sang hymns. Another group held aloft a black-and-white sign proclaiming “Faithful to the Pope” in Italian.

By nightfall, the lit-up square filled with an international mix of lay people and religious figures in the dress of their orders.

Four large television screens projected images of the small chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.

Conversations flowed in different languages — English, Italian, German, Spanish, Arabic and others.

“For me to be here at the conclave, it's a big grace,” said Sister Providence Schneider, also of the Servants of the Lord. “The Holy Spirit is working within the Church, and it's really exciting.”

She and Sister Mercy were among three dozen nuns bused an hour to the square from the monastery where they live. “We are praying for whatever is God's will,” she said.

Earlier, on a hill across the city that overlooked the Vatican, young Catholics of the Women's Ordination Conference lit a pink smoke flare in protest.

Eric Siaz Hanna, 32, the group's executive director, dismissed the conclave as a “celebration of patriarchy” and objected to the church's “ban on women from all leadership and decision-making positions.”

Founded in 1975, the organization wants women to serve as deacons, priests and bishops; it claims to represent 63 percent of U.S. Catholics who support the ordination of women.

“We grew up after the second wave of feminism, and we were told we could be anybody we wanted to be,” said Hanna. “And we want a place in our church.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at

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