A new plume of black smoke over the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday indicated that Catholic cardinals had failed, after three rounds of voting, to elect a new leader for their 1.2 billion-strong Church.
The 115 cardinals had gone into seclusion on Tuesday to find a successor to Benedict XVI, who brought a troubled eight-year papacy to an abrupt end by resigning last month aged 85.
The black smoke — a signal given not after each failed vote but after every two such rounds — indicated that no one had gained the two-thirds majority needed to become the 266th pope.
A successful result would be signalled immediately by white smoke and followed soon afterward with the famous announcement in Latin, “Habemus Papam” (We Have a Pope).
The failed balloting deepened the suspense as no clear frontrunner has emerged, although conjecture has coalesced around three favourites: Italy’s Angelo Scola, Brazil’s Odilo Scherer and Canada’s Marc Ouellet, all conservatives like Benedict.
“So far there is no majority, but some candidates with little support will fall by the wayside soon,” an anonymous cardinal who is too old to vote told the Italian daily La Stampa.