VATICAN CITY, March 13 (Reuters) - Cardinals begin the process of choosing a new pope in earnest on Wednesday, holding their first full day of voting for a leader to face a major crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.
The 115 cardinal electors return to the frescoed Sistine Chapel, where they are scheduled to hold two votes in the morning and two in the afternoon, seeking to elect a pontiff capable of facing a string of scandals and internal strife.
When a pope is elected, white smoke will emerge from the chapel and the bells of St Peter's will peal.
The cardinals were shut inside on Tuesday for the first time, after a day of religious pomp and prayer to prepare for the task. Only one vote was held on Tuesday night, ending inconclusively as expected, with black smoke billowing from a chimney above the chapel to signal no pope had been elected.
Excited crowds braving rain in St Peter's Square cheered all the same.
"We thought there might not have been any smoke at all so it was fun to see it. I feel very excited to be here at this historic moment," said Stefan Elsen, 50, a tourist from Trappenkamp near Kiel in northern Germany.
No modern conclave has reached a decision on the first day, so the lack of an outcome on Tuesday's single vote was no surprise. The initial vote is seen as a way of filtering the choice down to frontrunners for discussions in following days.
Most bets are on a decision by Thursday although there is still no clear favourite and it could take longer.
No hint is expected to emerge before the pope is chosen. The Vatican has taken precautions, including electronic jamming devices, to prevent any leaks from inside the conclave.
The new pope will take up a burden that Pope Benedict declared in February was beyond his physical capabilities.
The Church is reeling from a child abuse scandal and the "Vatileaks" case in which Benedict's butler revealed documents alleging corruption and infighting inside the Curia, or central bureaucracy. It has also been shaken by rivalry from other churches, the advance of secularism, especially in its European heartland, and problems in the running of the Vatican bank.
Frontrunners include the Italy's Angelo Scola - who would return the papacy to traditional Italian hands after 35 years of the German Benedict XVI and Polish John Paul II - and Brazilian Odilo Scherer - who would be the first non-European pope since Syrian-born Gregory III, nearly 1300 years ago.
Before beginning their conclave on Tuesday, the cardinals attended a Mass in the imposing St Peter's Basilica where Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the "princes of the Church", called for unity.
"My brothers let us pray that the Lord will grant us a pontiff who will embrace this noble mission with a generous heart," he said in his homily.
WHAT KIND OF POPE IS NEEDED?
In preparatory meetings before the conclave, the cardinals seemed divided between those who believe the new pontiff must be a strong manager to get the dysfunctional bureaucracy under control and others who are looking more for a proven pastoral figure to revitalise their faith across the globe.
Milan Archbishop Scola, who has managed two big Italian dioceses without being part of the Vatican's central administration, could be well-placed to understand the Curia's Byzantine politics and introduce swift reform.
Scherer is said to be the Curia's favoured candidate and would satisfy those who want a non-European, reflecting the future of a Church shifting towards the developing world.
A host of other candidates from numerous nations have also been mentioned as "papabili" - potential popes - including U.S. cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley, Canada's Marc Ouellet and Argentina's Leonardo Sandri.
All the prelates meeting in the Sistine Chapel were appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, and the next pontiff will almost certainly pursue their fierce defence of traditional moral teachings.
In a ritual reflecting the centuries-old history of the conclave, the red-robed cardinals walked in procession through lavish marble chambers into the Sistine Chapel, accompanied by Latin chants and organ music.
Two rows of Swiss Guards from the papal army, dressed in traditional yellow, red and blue uniforms with helmets and pikes, stood at attention as the cardinals processed past.
The cardinals took an oath of secrecy and the papal master of ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, said "Extra Omnes" or "Everybody Out", meaning all those not involved in the election had to leave before the heavy wooden doors were pulled shut.
The cardinals meet inside a chapel which houses some of the world's greatest art treasures - Michelangelo's luminous frescos. The Last Judgment is depicted behind the altar and the depiction of God giving life to Adam is on the ceiling.
Each night they retire to a Vatican guesthouse, where more elaborate precautions have been taken to avoid leaks.
Some cardinals speculated this week that it might take 4-5 days to pick the new pontiff because of the difficulty of the task and the number of strong candidates.
The average length of the last nine conclaves was just over three days and none went on for longer than five. (Additional reporting by Catherine Hornby, Naomi O'Leary, Philip Pullella, Crispian Balmer and Tom Heneghan; Editing by Keith Weir and Peter Graff)
FILE - This Nov. 24, 2012 file photo shows the then newly-elected Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, Philippines, posing for photographers prior to meeting relatives and friends after he was elevated to cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI, at the Vatican. Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle's best response against the tide of secularism, clergy sex abuse scandals and rival-faith competition could be his reputation for humility. His compassion for the poor and unassuming ways have impressed followers in his homeland, Asia's largest Catholic nation, and church leaders in the Vatican. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, of Italy, arrives for a meeting, at the Vatican, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Tuesday brought a second day of pre-conclave meetings with cardinals to organize the election process and get to know one another. With a handful of cardinals still traveling to Rome, no date has yet been set for the start of the conclave that will elect the new Pope. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
FILE - A Sunday Feb. 24, 2013 photo from files showing Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, the 70-year-old archbishop of Tegucigalpa, giving mass at the metropolitan cathedral in the city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. To many, Honduran Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga embodies the activist wing of the Roman Catholic Church as an outspoken campaigner of human rights, a watchdog on climate change and advocate of international debt relief for poor nations. Others, however, see him as a reactionary in the other direction: Described as sympathetic to a coup in his homeland and stirring accusations of anti-Semitism for remarks that some believe suggested Jewish interests encouraged extra media attention on church sex abuse scandals. Both images will follow him into the Sistine Chapel conclave along with other cardinals named as possible successors to Pope Benedict XVI. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio, File)
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio walks in St. Peter's Square after attending a cardinals' meeting, at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Cardinals are meeting to discuss the problems of the church and to get to know one another because there is no clear front-runner in the election of the new pope. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
FILE - This Nov. 24, 2007 file photo shows Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, from Argentina, after being elevated to cardinal as he greets relatives and friends, not pictured, at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, files)
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2013 file photo Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, Sao Paulo's archbishop, gives a Thanksgiving Mass for Pope Benedict XVI at the Cathedral in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Cardinal Odilo Scherer is known for prolific tweeting, appearances on Brazil's most popular late-night talk show and squeezing into the subway for morning commutes, just like most of the 5 million faithful in his diocese. Scherer is Brazil's best hope to be the next pope, and one of the top papal contenders from the developing world. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)
ADD FEB. 12 - Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson talks to the Associated Press during an interview, in Rome, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. One of Africa's brightest hopes to be the next pope, Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson, says the time is right for a pontiff from the developing world. In the background is a painting of late Pope John Paul II. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
Cardinal Marc Ouellet arrives for an afternoon meeting, at the Vatican, Friday, March 8, 2013. The Vatican says the conclave to elect a new pope will likely start in the first few days of next week. The Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters that cardinals will vote Friday afternoon on the start date of the conclave but said it was "likely" they would choose Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. The cardinals have been attending pre-conclave meetings to discuss the problems of the church and decide who among them is best suited to fix them as pope. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
In this photo taken May 18, 2012 photo Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, gestures during a press conference in Milan, Italy. Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is seen as Italy's best chance at reclaiming the papacy, following back-to-back popes from outside the country that had a lock on the job for centuries. The powerful cardinal displays not only an ease with youth but also a desire to make himself understood _ a vital quality for a church that is bleeding membership. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Cardinal Timothy Dolan arrives for a meeting, at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Cardinals from around the world have gathered inside the Vatican for a round of meetings before the conclave to elect the next pope, amid scandals inside and out of the Vatican and the continued reverberations of Benedict XVI's decision to retire. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn arrives at the Vatican, Thursday, March 7, 2013. Cardinals from around the world are gathered inside the Vatican on the fourth day of meetings before the conclave to elect the next pope, amid scandals inside and out of the Vatican and the continued reverberations of Benedict XVI's decision to retire. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, foreground, followed by cardinal Roger Mahoney arrives in St. Peter's Basilica to attend a vespers celebration at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)