White smoke is billowing from the Sistine Chapel chimney and bells are ringing across Rome, indicating a new leader has been chosen for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
It's not yet clear who the new pope is. But he is expected to appear on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica within the hour before throngs of faithful waiting to witness the first new pontiff in eight years, and the 266th pontiff in the 2,000-year history of the church
The pope was elected on the fifth ballot in a remarkably quick conclave — given that there was no clear frontrunner going in. The winner must receive 77 votes, or two-thirds of the support of the 115 voting cardinals.
A sodden but jubilant crowd of thousands are cheering in St. Peter's Square after braving pouring rain and watching the Sistine chimney intently for signs of white smoke. People were literally running to the square from all over the city, abandoning cars and motorcycles and rushing on foot to get into the square.
A church official is expected to announce "Habemus Papum" — "We have a pope" — and give the name of the new pope in Latin.
While there was no clear frontrunner, names mentioned most often as top candidates for pope include:
- Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan;
- Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's important bishops' office; and
- Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, who is well-regarded among the Vatican bureaucracy
Vatican expert Gerard O’Connor says it’s expected to take about 40 minutes before we find out who the pope is. "The big question is have they chosen a (European) or have they crossed the Atlantic for the first time in history?"
The conclave was called after Pope Benedict XVI resigned last month, throwing the church into turmoil and exposing divisions among cardinals tasked with finding a leader to clean up a Vatican bureaucracy widely seen as corrupt. The cardinals were also in search of a spiritual guide and a booster who could revive Catholicism in a time of growing secularism.
“I think (if) you look down here, the church has many problems — but you see the immense unity and joy this kind of an event brings," said O'Connor.
"This event unifies, it brings people together; people are happy, you see the joy in the crowd and we will see perhaps a quarter million people before he comes to the balcony because people are coming in from all over the city.