One of the pilgrims in the crowds Tuesday alluded to the challenges facing the church.
"It's a moment of crisis for the church, so we have to show support of the new pope," said Veronica Herrera, a real estate agent from Mexico who traveled to Rome for the conclave with her husband and daughter.
Yet the mood was not entirely somber.
A group of women who say they are priests launched pink smoke from a balcony overlooking the square to demand female ordination--a play on the famous smoke signals that will tell the world whether a pope has been elected. Two topless activists from Femen were dragged away from the edge of St. Peter's Square by police. Femen activists have previously protested the Vatican's opposition to gay marriage.
And in a bizarre twist, basketball star Dennis Rodman promised to be in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday in a makeshift popemobile as he campaigns for Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana to become the church's first black pope.
None of the cardinals will see it, since they will be sequestered inside the Vatican walls. They are allowed to travel only from the Vatican hotel through the gardens to the Sistine Chapel and back until they have elected a pope. No telephones, no newspapers, no television, no tweeting.
The focus of the ritual is on the Sistine Chapel, the Michelangelo masterwork painted over the course of nearly 30 years starting in 1508, so astonishing Pope John Paul II that he called it "the sanctuary of the theology of the body."
The most famous frescoes are "Creation" is a series of nine frescos running the length of the ceiling, the most well-known of which is the "Creation of Adam," showing God and Adam, their fingers reaching out to one another. "The Last Judgment" fresco behind the altar depicts a muscular Jesus surrounded by naked masses ascending to heaven and falling to hell.
Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, once wrote that the images of the beginning and the end of creation weighed on him when he was an elector in the 1978 conclave that brought John Paul to the papacy.
"I know well how we were exposed to those images in the hour of the important decisions, how they challenged us and how they instilled in our souls the greatness of our responsibility," Ratzinger said in 2003, at the presentation of a book of poetry by John Paul about the Sistine frescoes.
While few people expect a pontiff to be elected on the first ballot, the Vatican was ready: In the Room of Tears off the Sistine Chapel, three sizes of white cassocks hung from a clothes rack. Underneath, seven white shoe boxes were piled, presumably containing the various sizes of the red leather shoes that popes traditionally wear. The room gets its name from the weight of the job thrust upon the new pontiff.
The papal tailor Gammarelli delivered the clothes on Monday to ensure that the newly elected pope could change immediately into papal white as soon as he accepts the election. With the words "Habemus Papam"--or "We have a pope"--the pontiff then appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to greet the crowd.
But with so much uncertainty and upheaval going into the conclave, even the American cardinals couldn't agree on whether to expect a short or long conclave.
Cardinal Dolan this week publicly expressed optimism that the election would be wrapped up quickly. And on the eve of the conclave, he wrote a letter to New York priests, saying: "My guess is that we'd have a new Successor of St. Peter by Thursday evening," according to Dolan's spokesman, Joseph Zwilling.
That bullish stance stood in stark contrast with the view of Chicago Cardinal Francis George: His spokeswoman, Colleen Dolan, told The Associated Press that the cardinal suggested it could be a long affair. George raised the possibility that the cardinals may still be meeting by Saturday, when conclave rules require the cardinals to take a break and spend some time in prayer before resuming voting.
The faithful in St. Peter's square were also weighing in on the papal stakes.
"I don't think it's going to be a European pope," said Michael Flueckiger, a 38-year-old caretaker and sacristan of a church in Flamatt, Switzerland. "In Europe sometimes I think we have given away the gift of faith. Many people have lost the faith. They have lost their expectation in God."