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
the order "Extra omnes" - "Everyone out" - and all but those taking part in the conclave leave the chapel's frescoed walls.
During the voting that ensues, each cardinal writes his choice on a rectangular piece of paper inscribed with the words "Eligo in summen pontificem" - Latin for "I elect as Supreme Pontiff."
Holding the folded ballot up in the air, each approaches the altar and places it on a saucer, before tipping it into an oval urn, as he intones these words: "I call as my witness, Christ the Lord, who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who, before God, I think should be elected."
After the votes are counted, and the outcomes announced, the papers are bound together with a needle and thread, each ballot pierced through the word "Eligo." The ballots are then placed in a cast-iron stove and burned with a special chemical.
That's when all eyes will turn to the 6-foot-high copper chimney erected atop the Sistine Chapel to pipe out puffs of smoke to tell the world if there's a new pope.
Black smoke means "not yet" - the likely outcome after Round 1. White smoke means the 266th pope has been chosen.
The first puffs of smoke should emerge sometime around 8 p.m. Tuesday. If they are black, voting will continue, four rounds each day, until a pope is elected.
Whoever he is, the next pope will face a church in crisis: Benedict spent his eight-year pontificate trying to revive Catholicism amid the secular trends that have made it almost irrelevant in places like Europe, once a stronghold of Christianity. Clerical sex abuse scandals have soured many faithful on their church, and competition from rival evangelical churches in Latin America and Africa has drawn souls away.
Closer to home, the next pope has a major challenge awaiting him inside the Vatican walls, after the leaks of papal documents in 2012 exposed ugly turf battles, allegations of corruption and even a plot purportedly orchestrated by Benedict's aides to out a prominent Italian Catholic editor as gay.
Cardinals heard a briefing Monday from the Vatican No. 2 about another stain on the Holy See's reputation, the Vatican bank. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who heads the commission of cardinals overseeing the scandal-marred Institute for Religious Works, outlined the efforts to clean up the bank's image in international financial circles.
Massimo Franco, noted columnist for the leading daily Corriere della Sera, said the significance of the revelations about the bank and the Holy See's internal governance cannot be underestimated, since they were factors in Benedict's decision to resign and the major task faced by his successor.
Franco, whose new book "The Crisis of the Vatican Empire" describes the Vatican's utter dysfunction, said cardinals are still traumatized by Benedict's resignation, leading to uncertainty heading into the conclave.
"It's quite unpredictable. There isn't a majority, neither established nor in the making," he said - unlike in 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had tremendous front-runner status going into the conclave that elected him pope after just four ballots.
Dolan, a possible papal contender, seemed to think otherwise, though, and was bounding with optimism by the end of the pre-conclave meetings and the drama about to unfold.
"I'm kind of happy they're over because we came here to elect a pope and we'll start it tomorrow with the holy sacrifice of the Mass, then into the conclave and look for the white smoke!" Dolan enthused on his radio show on SiriusXM's "The Catholic Channel."
Errazuriz, the cardinal from Chile, said the key isn't so much where the next pope comes from, but what he brings to the papacy.
Cardinals, he told AP, are looking for a pope "who is close to God, has love for people, the poorest, the ability to preach the Gospel to the world and understand the young and bring them closer to God. These are the categories that count."
He argued that Latin America, counting 40 percent of the world's Catholics, is underrepresented in the college of cardinals. "It doesn't have 40 percent of the cardinals," he said.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, also a leading papal contender, said he was going into the conclave still rattled by the fact that his mentor, Benedict, had resigned.
"It made me cry. He was my teacher. We worked together for over 40 years," Schoenborn said during a Mass late Sunday. Nevertheless, Schoenborn said the cardinals had banded together to face the future.
"It makes us brothers, not contenders," he said. "Such a surprising act has already begun a true renewal."
Reporters Jorge Pina and Daniela Petroff contributed.