- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2001

The Roman Catholic cardinals met yesterday in Rome to assess the future of the church and to conduct an informal trial run for the election of the next pope.
Of the 155 cardinals gathered for a "consistory" at the popes Apostolic Palace, 134 are young enough to vote for a 265th pontiff. Their gathering to hear Pope John Paul IIs concerns, Vatican watchers say, is also their chance to evaluate each other as a possible bishop of Rome.
"We will listen to ideas and testimonies, we will discuss, in brotherly fashion, pastoral issues and challenges," John Paul, who turned 81 on Friday, said in one of yesterdays four addresses in closed session.
The guide for the three-day "extraordinary consistory," which John Paul had called five times before, is his January apostolic letter about the new millennium and seven questions he posed for deliberation.
He asked cardinals yesterday to "highlight concrete elements of a program" that could address concerns on that list, such as missionary work, the media, relations with other religions and helping the poor.
The list also included the churchs challenges with the spread of New Age faiths and the teaching of sexual morality. Under the theme of "collegiality" in the church, the cardinals will evaluate how the Roman Curia, or central church government, has changed since the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965.
In his brief address to the closed-door sessions, John Paul also said the church must make the training of priests a priority.
Since his election in 1978, John Paul has appointed all but 11 of the 134 cardinals who, by being younger than 80, are eligible to vote for his successor.
Their number increased dramatically in February when the pope elevated 44 new "princes of the church."
Of the College of Cardinals 183 members, 28 did not attend this consistory.
"Meetings like this are normally not decision-making ones," said the Rev. Joseph Komonchak, a Catholic University historian of Vatican affairs. "How much can seriously be done in three days?"
He said Pope John Paul II is "trying to revive the importance of the College of Cardinals," which was not given as much emphasis by preceding modern popes.
The world media has emphasized that the gathering is the final chance for cardinals to size each other up before the next papal election. They will see each others styles, personalities, gifts with languages and topics of interest, Vatican watchers have said.
Earlier this month, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica captured the tone of the papal handicapping.
"The next pope may bless the crowd in St. Peters with a Spanish accent," the newspaper said, referring to Latin America now having the largest number of Catholics.
"But the duel in the conclave will be between two Germans: Joseph Ratzinger against Karl Lehmann; the cardinal of steel versus the liberal," La Repubblica said.
Cardinal Lehmann is among a few prelates who have called openly for a Third Vatican Council to tackle the issues the cardinals have only three days to discuss.
Vatican II was called suddenly and unexpectedly by Pope John XXIII after his 1958 election as an "interim pope," or one who by age would serve a short term. Vatican scholars say the the current pope or another may likewise call for a major council at will.
Father Komonchak said there is less disharmony between the College of Cardinals and the pope than there would be at a council of all bishops around the globe.
"If there were a contrast to draw, it would be a consistory, which includes only cardinals, and a [Vatican] council of the church that would include all the bishops," he said.
Father Komonchak said that as historic church reforms go, the topics addressed by the cardinals do not lend themselves to solutions by centralized events such as a consistory or even an ecumenical Vatican III.
"Many of the challenges are so local, I wonder if an ecumenical council would meet them," he said.
In January, the pope released his 70-page apostolic letter "At the Start of a New Millennium" (Novo Millennio Ineunte), which said ecumenism was "indispensable" and urged a strong defense of the family, unborn life, the environment and human rights.
The church faces a major challenge in Asia, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray of France said in his report yesterday. There, he said, "the Church is a minority among a population that represents the worlds majority."
* This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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