Roman Catholic cardinals went into a virtual news blackout Tuesday as they began to elect a new pope, but that has only heightened interest in what's happening behind the closed doors of their
"I just had 'smoke cam' on my screen," said Monsignor Stuart Swetland, a professor and vice president for Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg who was watching
On Tuesday, after the cardinals held their first vote, the smoke was black, signaling that the 115 electors had not picked a new leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
The election to choose a successor to retired Pope
On multiple live streams, viewers could take in the spectacle of the red-robed cardinals filing into St. Peter's Basilica on Tuesday for a special Mass dedicated to the election, then entering the Sistine Chapel to individually take an oath of secrecy before the doors were locked and the balloting began.
Swetland said part of the reason for the increased interest in the conclave is that there simply are more sources for real-time information.
He said interest has also been heightened by the unexpected resignation of Benedict — the first pope to step down in almost 600 years. "It was such a surprise. It really did focus people's attention," he said.
Finally, Swetland said, given this "pivotal moment" in the church's history, with rapid growth in the developing world and a perceived need for reform and evangelism in the developed countries, Catholics recognize the importance of the cardinals' selection.
"I have a sense people are praying for them. Students here are prayerful and hope-filled," said Swetland, whose own Mass for the election of a new pope Tuesday morning was attended by 200 people.
Interest in the conclave is also high at Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore's Seton Hill neighborhood, said the Rev. Jason Catania, its pastor.
"They're following on Twitter, on Facebook. I just signed up myself for 'pope alert,'" Catania said, referring to popealarm.com, which monitors the copper chimney erected on the Sistine Chapel roof and promises to send a text or email as soon as white smoke appears.
Catania said his parishioners have a particular interest in the proceedings because it was Benedict who made it possible for Mount Calvary, once Episcopal, to join the Roman Catholic Church.
It was the first church in the United States to make the transition, in January 2012, as some of the more conservative congregations became alienated from the Episcopal Church for, among other issues, its ordination of women and gays.
"This is the first time we are experiencing this as Catholics," Catania said. "Also, because Pope Benedict made it possible for us to come into the Catholic Church, we have a particular loyalty to the office of the papacy. It's not just some guy in Rome."
The church, attended by Gen. Robert E. Lee when he lived in Baltimore during the 1850s, has yellow and white bunting — the colors of the Vatican City flag — that it plans to put up when the new pope is selected.
Karen Davis, a parishioner and secretary at the church, has been tuning into EWTN, the Catholic television network, to keep up on what she called the "historic" conclave to replace a retired pope, rather than one who died in office.
"There's just a void now. In daily prayers, we pray for the pope by name, and he prays for all of us," Davis said. "There's a vacancy in who's praying for us."
Even Catholics who have butted heads with the Vatican are watching closely.
"At times like this, there's always hope a new pope can change the direction of the papacy and the direction of the church," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for LGBT Catholics based in Prince George's County.
DeBernardo said that the past two popes have been negative toward gay Catholics and hopes that the next one will at least change the tone and begin a reconciliation.
"I'm hoping for a pope who is a pastor. We've had a pope who was a philosopher, and one who is a theologian," DeBernardo said of Popes John Paul II and Benedict, respectively. "The church needs one who is a pastor and who is a reconciler. We've seen too many people who have become alienated by the harshness of the rhetoric."
DeBernardo said simply changing the tone from the top can go a long way toward healing the divisions in the church, making the conclave's work exceedingly important.
"The church is in such a more fragile situation than the last time there was a papal vacancy," he said. "The last time, we were coming off the long and triumphalist papacy of John Paul. It was a very confident church then.
"Then we had eight years of Benedict XVI, and we've seen an erosion in the confidence of the church's authority," DeBernardo said. "There seems to be more at stake than the last time."
Vatican watchers say another difference this time around is the lack of a front-runner, as in 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger clearly had the inside track and, indeed, was elected.
Having a more crowded field of "papabiles," or potential popes, has only served to increase the amount of speculative chatter as the conclave proceeds, said Swetland, of Mount St. Mary's.
The campus was also consumed with its men's basketball team's game Tuesday night, which could have sent the Mountaineers to the NCAA tournament. LIU-Brooklyn, the university's opponent, ultimately won the Northeast Conference championship, 91-70.
The conclave, Swetland said, "adds to the March Madness."