VATICAN CITY (RNS) -- Pope John Paul II opened the largest meeting ofcardinals in history Monday (May 21) to set priorities for the CatholicChurch and its 1 billion members in the third millennium ofChristianity.

A total of 155 "princes of the church" gathered behind closed doorsfor an Extraordinary Consistory convened exactly three months after thepope enlarged the College of Cardinals to a record 183 members. TheVatican said that even with 28 absent because of age or infirmity, itwas the largest assembly of cardinals ever held.

Some observers saw the meeting as a dry run for the Conclave ofcardinals that will elect the next pope after the death of John Paul,who turned 81 on Friday. They predicted that the cardinals would breakup into liberal and conservative camps and divide according to geographyand whether they held pastoral or curial posts.

But for John Paul, the Consistory was an attempt to keep up themomentum of last year's Jubilee Holy Year celebrations with which thechurch entered the new millennium. Now in the 23rd year of hispontificate, he sought to mobilize his highest advisory body to bringconcerted new energy into the church.

The cardinals will base their work on the apostolic letter "NovoMillennio Ineunte (The Beginning of the New Millennium)," which JohnPaul issued at the end of Holy Year.

"The composition of this venerated assembly, which gathers cardinalscoming from every part of the Earth and belonging to various cultures,well represents the unity, the universality and missionary nature of thechurch projected toward new apostolic aims," John Paul said in a briefopening address.

In calling the sixth Extraordinary Consistory of his reign, theRoman Catholic pontiff had instructed the cardinals to study seven areasof action for the church, but in his brief opening address he stressedevangelization as the church's foremost task.

Asking the cardinals' help in drawing up "concrete programs" ofevangelization for "the dawn of a new millennium," John Paul said, "Wemust give fire to prioritized missionary objectives and to the mostsuitable methods of work as well as searching for the necessary means."

In a questionnaire sent to the cardinals in advance, the pope askedhow the church can evangelize in the context of dialogue and religiouspluralism, make better use of its evangelical roots, maintain itsoriginality in the face of New Age sects, improve its administrativefunctions, create a globalization of solidarity toward those in need,convince Catholics to accept church teaching on sexual morality and makebetter use of the mass media.

During three days of meetings with simultaneous interpretation infive languages and small, working-group sessions, the cardinals willdraw up a report to the pope on goals for a revitalized church.

At a briefing on the first session, Vatican spokesman JoaquinNavarro-Valls said that 16 cardinals opened debate on issues rangingfrom the primacy of the pope to the centrality of the family.

Cardinal Eugenio de Araujo Sales of Rio de Janeiro declared that"loyalty to the pope and unity with the pope are integral parts of theCatholic faith," the spokesman said. Papal primacy is a key issue inecumenical dialogue.

Cardinal Francisco Alvarez Martinez of Toledo, Spain, said that justas the relations between capital and labor dominated the social doctrineof the 19th century, the family must be the dominant theme of the 21stcentury. He said this includes questions of human sexuality and the needfor "ethical behavior between men and women."

Navarro-Valls said Cardinals William Keeler of Baltimore and RogerMahony of Los Angeles underlined the importance of the mass media astools for evangelization.

Referring to the hill in Athens from which St. Paul preached hissermon to the Gentiles, the spokesman quoted them as saying that"newspapers, television and the Internet are the new Areopagus for theevangelization of the 2000s."

"The church doesn't need mending here and there," Slovak CardinalJozef Tomko, who recently retired as prefect of the Vatican Congregationfor the Evangelization of Peoples, told the meeting. "It needs anextraordinary mobilization to reaffirm that sanctity is the normalcondition of everyone in the church."

Spanish Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregationfor the Causes of Saints, called for the "globalization of sanctity."

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, Maronite patriarch of Lebanon, spoke ofthe possibilities of interreligious dialogue tied to cooperation inaiding the poor and the needy.

In an address to the afternoon session of the Consistory, CardinalJean-Marie Lustiger of Paris warned that in an epoch of globalizationand technological advances, "means must not take the place of ends.


Lustiger said that some make hidden idols of the means to achievepower, happiness, profit, glory or vanity. But, he said, "Human meanscannot substitute for the divine ends of the church."