VATICAN CITY - Cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to elect the next pope amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the Catholic Church has seen in decades: There's no front-runner, no indication how long voting will last and no sense that a single man has what it takes to fix the many problems.
The day began with cardinals celebrating a final Mass before they sequester themselves for the secret election. As a Gregorian chant filled St. Peter's Basilica, the 115 cardinals participating in the conclave filed in wearing bright red vestments, many looking grim as if the burden of the imminent vote was weighing on them.
In his homily, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, called for unity within the church, a not-so-veiled appeal to the cardinal electors to put their differences aside for the good of the church.
"Each of us is therefore called to cooperate with the Successor of Peter, the visible foundation of such an ecclesial unity," Sodano said.
He was interrupted by applause from the pews - not so much from the cardinals - when he referred to the "beloved and venerated" Benedict XVI and his "brilliant" pontificate.
A few hundred people braved thunderstorms and pouring rain to watch the Mass on giant TV screens in St. Peter's Square. Hundreds of thousands are expected to gather when the pope is elected.
Benedict's surprise resignation - the first in 600 years by a pope - has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed the deep divisions among cardinals who are grappling with whether they need a manager who can clean up the Vatican's dysfunctional bureaucracy or a pastor who can inspire the world's 1.2 billion Catholics at a time of waning faith.
In the afternoon, the cardinals will file into the frescoed Sistine Chapel singing the Litany of Saints, a hypnotic Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of saints to help them choose a pope. They will hear a meditation by an elderly Maltese cardinal, take an oath of secrecy, then in all probability cast their first ballots.
Assuming they vote, the first puffs of smoke should emerge from the chapel chimney by 8 p.m.; black for no pope, white if a pope has been chosen.
On the eve of the vote, cardinals offered wildly different assessments of what they're looking for in the next pontiff and how close they are to a decision.
"This time around, there are many different candidates, so it's normal that it's going to take longer than the last time," Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz of Chile told The Associated Press.
"There are no groups, no compromises, no alliances, just each one with his conscience voting for the person he thinks is best, which is why I don't think it will be over quickly."
None of that has prevented a storm of chatter over who's ahead.
The buzz in the papal stakes swirled around Cardinal Angelo Scola, an Italian seen as favored by cardinals hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy, and Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, a favorite of Vatican-based insiders intent on preserving the status quo.
Scola is affable and Italian, but not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia. That gives him clout with those seeking to reform the nerve center of the church that has been discredited by revelations of leaks and complaints from cardinals in the field that Rome is inefficient and unresponsive to their needs.
Scherer seems to be favored by Latin Americans and the Curia. He has a solid handle on the Vatican's finances, sitting on the governing commission of the Vatican bank, as well as the Holy See's main budget committee.
As a non-Italian, the archbishop of Sao Paulo would be expected to name an Italian as secretary of state - the Vatican No. 2 who runs day-to-day affairs - another plus for Vatican-based cardinals who would want one of their own running the shop.
The pastoral camp seems to be focusing on two Americans, New York archbishop Timothy Dolan and Boston archbishop Sean O'Malley. Neither has Vatican experience. Dolan has acknowledged his Italian isn't strong - seen as a handicap for a job in which the lingua franca of day-to-day work is Italian.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet is well-respected, stemming from his job at the important Vatican office that vets bishop appointments. Less well known is that he has a lovely singing voice and can be heard belting out French folk songs on occasion.
If the leading names fail to reach the 77 votes required for victory in the first few rounds of balloting, any number of surprise candidates could come to the fore as alternatives.
It all started Tuesday with the cardinals checking into the Santa Marta residence on the edge of the Vatican gardens. The rooms are simple and impersonal, but a step up from the cramped conditions the cardinals faced before the hotel was put to use in 2005, when long lines would form at the Apostolic Palace for using bathrooms.
After Mass and the procession into the Sistine Chapel, the master of papal liturgical ceremonies gives