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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - They came in their thousands to hail a new pope, only to have any hopes they had dashed by a puff of black smoke - but that did not quell the excitement of crowds gathered in the rain at the Vatican on Wednesday.
Most of those in St. Peter's Square were well versed enough in the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church to know that white smoke to signify the naming of a new pope was unlikely to emerge from the first full voting season of the conclave on Wednesday.
"You can't expect a microwave pope," said Adrian Britton, a 34-year-old artist and missionary from Maryland. "It's a process.
"These men are trying carefully to work out who should be next to lead them. I'm kind of happy it wasn't white smoke because I just showed up," added Britton, who said friends in his parish had paid for him to come to Rome and pray for them during the conclave.
Cheers rose from the crowd as the first wisps of smoke emerged in late morning, only to turn to sighs when it became clear from subsequent billows that it was unambiguously black.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said there were more people at St. Peter's than he expected and the numbers were likely to swell again on Wednesday evening when Romans head to the square after work to see the results of the afternoon votes.
Those waiting for the smoke had strong views on who should lead a Church that has been damaged by sex scandals and allegations of corruption and in-fighting in its administration.
"It's important to have a pope who is interested in youth, and working more with the parishes," said Kristian Brink, a 21-year-old Dane who was skipping classes at Rome's La Sapienza university.
"A pope from another continent would be good, not always from Europe," added Brink, who had a red-and-white Danish flag over his shoulders. "I support the Filipino one," he said of Cardinal Luis Tagle. "He is also young."
Tagle, 55, is the archbishop of Manila, and has a charisma often compared to that of Pope John Paul II. Tagle's name was on the lips of many of those waiting outside the Vatican.
Patricia Seidenberger, a 61-year-old retiree from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said she hoped that the cardinals would choose a reformer: "Coming from America, I think we are a little more liberal," she said. "The new pope needs to take all views into consideration and be a bit more understanding of world issues."
Italian Angelo Scola and Brazilian Odilo Scherer are cited by Vatican insiders as the two most likely candidates to be chosen as the new pope. The election of Scola would return the papacy to Italy after a gap of 35 years while Scherer would be the first non-European for almost 1,300 years.
Seidenberger said the cardinals should be prepared to look further afield: "He should come from one of the regions where the number of Catholics is increasing fast," she said.
"A person from an area like that could bring a different perspective of what is going on in the world."
Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Alastair Macdonald