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Pope watch: White smoke or black smoke? Maybe a text message is better

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - White smoke or black smoke? Maybe it's easier just to wait for a text message that a new pope has been elected.

A Catholic organization has set up a website, www.popealarm.com, that lets people register to receive a text or email notification when a pope has been selected by cardinals meeting in Vatican City.

"When the smoke goes up, you'll know what's going down" is the site's motto.

After a day of pageantry Tuesday, black smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney indicated another vote was needed.

The text service set up by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, was an indication of how much has changed since the last papal conclave, in 2005. The site had proven so popular, with more than 40,000 respondents, that it said Tuesday it could no longer guarantee new registrants would get a text message. People could still sign up for emails.

Another new website, www.adoptacardinal.org, assigns interested people one of the voting cardinals at random to pray for him as he deliberates on a new pope. Nearly 500,000 people had signed up by Tuesday morning.

Television cameras on Tuesday caught for the first time the first steps in the papal conclave, with the participating cardinals, one by one, taking an oath of silence about their deliberations.

"For the few cardinals I have spoken with, all have said that it's the most important act they do as cardinal," said Father Joseph Martin, a Jesuit priest and television commentator. "It reminds you that they are also human beings charged with a divine task. Overall, I found it very moving."

When the oaths were taken, an official pronounced: "Extra omnes," Latin for everybody out.

All but the cardinals streamed out of the Sistine Chapel, and the large wooden doors were closed and latched behind them.

"That's quite a shot," NBC anchor Lester Holt said. CBS' Scott Pelley urged as much quiet as possible among his colleagues as the pictures played out on the network's special report. "No one has ever seen this before, so it's going to be fascinating," he said.

While the television networks resumed regular programming, websites for both CBS and NBC had "smoke cams," with cameras trained on the chimney that would provide the results of the first ballot. Within two hours, the results poured out.

In 2005, none of the top network anchors went to Rome for the conclave. Some network planners are reluctant to move broadcasts to Rome for the conclave because it's an open-ended event; no one knows how long it will last. It's different for the installation of a new pope, a defined event that can be scheduled around.

The BBC sent in 50 people, including three London-based anchors.

"It's huge, big resources are being devoted to this," said veteran Rome correspondent David Willey. He said the operation is bigger than for the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict.

___

EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder.

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