Bursts of pink smoke filled the air in Rome today as Catholic women staged a protest calling for women's equality in the church, while top Roman Catholic cardinals readied to elect the religion's next pope.

The Women's Ordination Conference, which has been lobbying the church for more than three decades to ordain women, staged the colourful protest at Piazza Garibaldi in Rome and in five locations across the United States, including Washington and San Francisco.

The organization's members and allies gathered in the morning carrying signs and canisters filled with pink smoke, which they released into the air.

The smoke is symbolic of how the church's male cardinals will announce the results of each vote during the conclave starting Tuesday afternoon. A chimney on the Sistine Chapel will release black smoke if the cardinals failed to reach a consensus and white smoke if they have successfully selected Benedict XVI's successor.

Question of women 'secondary'

Canadian Therese Koturbash donned a pink shirt for the protest and held up a canister, pink smoke billowing into the air behind her. She is the international ambassador for Women Priests, an organization that relies on theological and academic reasoning to convince religious authorities to start ordaining female clergy.

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The pink smoke protest in Rome and across the U.S. Tuesday was organized by a group pressuring the Vatican to start ordaining female priests. (Karen Pauls)

"The pink smoke is a sign of the voices we’re mourning who are excluded from the current conclave," she said. She said she was attending the protest because of her strong belief that the Vatican's refusal to ordain female priests means Catholics are being deprived of some of the priests God intended them to have.

Currently, women cannot be ordained to serve as priests, and there is little indication that the next pope will shift the church's stance on female ordination.

In an exclusive interview, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet — who is considered among those likely to win the papacy — told CBC's Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge that while the issue of women priests is important, it is "secondary."

Terence Fay, a Jesuit priest teaching at the University of Toronto's school of theology, echoed Ouellet's response. He said it takes a long time for such a liberal shift to happen, because a leader can only move so much on the political spectrum during his reign or he risks alienating his constituency.

Changes are 'necessary'

Benedict's reign resulted in "significant steps backwards for women," said the organization's executive director Erin Saiz Hanna, and left behind an "old boys club."

Still, the women remain hopeful.

Before the protest, Koturbash told CBC she believes women will serve as priests during her lifetime.

"Already there have been so many changes that have happened in the church, that it wouldn't be a big step to start including women," she said.

If Koturbash doesn't live to see a woman serve as pope, she said she hopes to be a strong link in the chain to making it happen.

The Catholic Network for Women's Equality released a statement supporting the series of international vigils, saying they hope the religion's male leaders will listen and respond accordingly.

"Structural changes are necessary in order to ensure that the gifts of women are brought to all levels of church ministry and leadership," read the statement.

With files from CBC's Karen Pauls in Rome