VATICAN CITY - The conclave of cardinals reconvened in the Sistine Chapel late Wednesday for a fourth and possibly fifth round of voting after three earlier ballots over two days failed to result in election of a pope.
The 115 cardinals can vote two more times before retiring for the day. A new pope will be elected when two-thirds, or 77, of the cardinals vote for the same man.
Black smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel's chimney earlier Wednesday, meaning the day's two previous votes failed to pick a leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. White smoke means a new pope will greet the thousands of believers, curious and media gathered at St. Peter's Square.
Some 6,000 journalists from around the world are here for the announcement, from bloggers in Mexico to network TV anchors. The crowds do not compare to the last conclave in 2005, which was preceded by a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of people for the much beloved John Paul II, who had sat on the throne of St. Peter since 1976.
Huddled under their umbrellas beneath the papal balcony at St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday, Keith and Dawn Johnson of San Diego marveled at their good timing. On a long-planned trip to Rome for Dawn's 50th birthday, the couple was debating changing evening plans to be here for the next conclave smoke signal.
"I'm a longtime history buff, and the history of this place and this event is amazing," said Keith. "It'd be nice to see the
smoke, whatever color it is. Just being in this square puts a sparkle in your face."
Earlier Wednesday, Vatican spokesman Rev. Frederico Lombardi told a packed room of international reporters that Vatican officials were surprised and delighted by the crowds -- even Tuesday, when no one really expected a pope to be named on the first vote. He said he expects the ultimate moment of white smoke, whenever it comes, will bring the people of Rome running from their homes and offices.
The fact that three votes have failed to end with a new pope is not a sign of confusion in the conclave, Lombardi said. He reminded people that the only election on the third ballot was Pius XII at the beginning of World War II.
Still, the end could be near -- it took just four votes to turn Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger into Pope Benedict XVI.
On Tuesday, the conclave got underway after the cardinals' march into the Sistine Chapel and a lengthy swearing-in ceremony. Then presiding Vatican camerlengo, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, announced "Extra Omes," or "everyone out," closed the big wooden doors and shut out the watching world.
Hours later, Piazza San Pietro buzzed with excitement as all eyes fixed on four giant color TV monitors which projected a live image of the chapel's recently installed temporary chimney, which was all but invisible in the evening darkness. Cameras flashed but few were shocked.
The cardinals held their first vote, drawing Tuesday night's "fumata nera," or black smoke.
The warning that a first vote most likely would be negative didn't dampen the spirits of the thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square under a steady, cold rain. Some sang, others flew their native flags, and one group held a banner aloft reading "Fedeli al papa," "faithful to the pope." They will no doubt be back in force for each of Wednesday's votes, and so on until one such balloting reveals a winner in these symbolic and pivotal papal sweepstakes.
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman and John Bacon in McLean, Va.