The Roman Catholic Church marked its first Sunday in nearly eight years without a papal blessing, as cardinals gathered to elect a new leader of the 1.2 billion-member faith in one of the most troubled periods of its history.
The windows of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter's Square were shut, which is normally the case only when a pope is outside Rome and delivers the Sunday blessing elsewhere.
There was no papal blessing of any kind, the first time the church has been in such a state of limbo since Sunday, April 3, 2005, the day after Pope John Paul died.
"It's strange, very strange to come to Rome to St. Peter's Square and not to hear the Angelus (Sunday blessing) of the pope, especially because the pope is still alive - it's a unique situation that we are living through," said Fabio Ferrara, who was one of the few people in the square at noon.
"We have been praying a lot, it's sad, it is very, very sad, we feel like orphans," said Sister Agnese Carreddu, an Italian nun in the square.
Catholics at Sunday masses throughout the world did not hear the customary prayer for "our pope, Benedict". It will be omitted from every mass until there is a new pope.
On Monday cardinals will begin preliminary meetings, known as general congregations, to get to know each other, discuss church issues and decide the starting date of the closed-door conclave to choose Benedict's successor.
The meetings are open to all cardinals, whereas only those under 80 can enter the Sistine Chapel and elect a new pope from their own ranks.
Currently 115 cardinal electors are due to take part in the conclave, which many believe will start around March 10.
The Vatican seems to be aiming for an election by mid-March so the new pope can be installed in office before Palm Sunday on March 24 and lead Holy Week services culminating in Easter the following Sunday.
No front-runner stands out and no campaigning is allowed for the election but leading candidates include Peter Turkson of Ghana, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Austrian Christoph Schoenborn, Brazil's Odilo Scherer, Canadian Marc Ouellet and Angelo Scola, the leading candidate from Italy.