Mar 13, 2013 2:14 PM
UPDATE: Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio elected as the new pope, the first pontiff from the Americas.
VATICAN CITY - White smoke rose above the Sistine Chapel Wednesday, signaling to Rome and the world that the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have chosen a new pope.
The smoke came on the second day of behind-closed-doors voting and marked the beginning to a new era for a church combatting scandal and internal strife.
The name of the new leader of the church's 1.2 billion worshippers was expected to be unveiled imminently on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica overlooking St. Peter's Square.
His appearance will be heralded by a Latin announcement begins with the phrase "Habemus Papam!" meaning, "We have a pope!"
The papal election follows the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 28.
Now known as the Pope Emeritus, he is now in a temporary lakeside residence at Castel Gandolfo while his permanent living quarters inside Vatican City are refurbished.
The behind-the-scenes ballot process that has taken place in the Sistine Chapel should still remain a secret. Both the cardinals and staff working alongside them swore an oath of secrecy as the conclave got underway, with the threat of ex-communication for anyone breaking the church's ancient code.
VATICAN CITY - The world was watching the skyline above the Vatican on Wednesday after black smoke signaled for a second time that cardinals had been unable to choose a pope.
The "princes of the church," who began their papal conclave late Tuesday, resumed their discussions on Wednesday afternoon.
Using a smartphone? Watch the Sistine Chapel's chimney LIVE here
Earlier, black smoke billowed from the chimney over the Sistine Chapel at about 11:45 a.m. local time (6:45 a.m. ET), indicating no candidate had won the necessary two-thirds majority.
So far, it is believed the cardinals have conducted three inconclusive ballots.
A fourth ballot was expected after 5:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. ET) Wednesday. If that is also inconclusive, it is expected cardinals will hold another after 7 p.m. (2 p.m. ET).
However, as of 6 p.m. local (1 p.m. ET) smoke-watching had become nothing more than bird-watching thanks to the arrival of a sea gull which, inevitably, prompted the Twitter hashtag trend #papalseagull and a Twitter parody account.
Shut off from the outside world without access to phones or television, the cardinals spent Tuesday night in their accommodation at Casa Santa Marta before returning to to the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday.
The 115 cardinals were back behind closed doors this morning for two more unsuccessful secret votes to select who among them will be the new leader of the Catholic church. NBC's Lester Holt and Keir Simmons report.
Despite torrential rain, hundreds of tourists milled around in St. Peter's Square with an eye on the Sistine Chapel's chimney in case it began to spew white smoke. That would indicate a cardinal has received the two-thirds of the votes required to be elected pope.
"We feel the world watching at this exciting time for the church," said Father Peter Verity, English priest and spiritual director of Rome's Beda College, in his homily at Mass at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Wall early Wednesday.
'Hairs standing on end'
Among the dawn worshippers in the congregation were visiting pilgrims Julie Knight, 50, from Indianapolis, and her husband Karl.
"There's a real sense of occasion in the city," she said. "I can feel my hairs standing on end, it's an incredible feeling."
The smoke is created by the burning of ballot papers used by the cardinals in their deciding vote, with chemical cartridges being added to ensure the smoke appears either black or white.
At a news conference during the cardinals' lunch break, Reverend Thomas Roscia, a Vatican spokesman, explained that five cartridges of mixed chemicals were released over a seven-minute period to alter the color of the smoke.
NBC's Keir Simmons takes a look at the nerve center of TODAY in Vatican City as Catholics around the world wait with bated breath to see the white smoke signaling a new pope has been selected.
A mixture of potassium perchlorate, anthracene, and sulphur were added for black while a mixture of potassium chlorate, lactose and pine resin were added for white.
Amid laughter, Rosica urged reporters to check the details. "I don't study this stuff," he said, "I study the Bible."
Roscia also gave reporters a personal account of the atmosphere inside the Sistine Chapel before the conclave began.
"I realized this was no longer a movie," he said. "I had chills going up my spine. As I looked at the cardinals gathered there, I saw not just their faces, but their nations. It was much bigger than I ever imagined."
He added: "This is not a rush to process... The whole process is slow, deeply meditative. People speak in hushed voices."
None of the 115 cardinals will be seen or heard, nor will they have any contact with the outside world, until they have chosen a successor to Benedict XVI, who abdicated on Feb. 28.
On purpose and by chance, Americans join crowd in St. Peter's Square to watch for signs of a newly elected pope.
The word "conclave" comes from the Latin meaning "with key". It is a church tradition that began in 1268 when local officials became so fed up with the lack of a decision among cardinals - they had deliberated for more than two years - that they locked them away with limited food and water to encourage a result.
Such is the importance of secrecy that Vatican officials have installed jamming devices to prevent the use of cellphones by cardinals or hidden microphones by anyone wanting to hear their deliberations.
No conclave has lasted more than five days in the past century, with most finishing within two or three days. Pope Benedict XVI was elected within barely 24 hours in 2005 after just four rounds of voting.