VATICAN CITY (RNS) -- Pope John Paul II opened the largest meeting of cardinals in history Monday (May 21) to set priorities for the Catholic Church and its 1 billion members in the third millennium of Christianity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a questionnaire sent to the cardinals in advance, the pope asked how the church can evangelize in the context of dialogue and religious pluralism, make better use of its evangelical roots, maintain its originality in the face of New Age sects, improve its administrative functions, create a globalization of solidarity toward those in need, convince Catholics to accept church teaching on sexual morality and make better use of the mass media.

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

At a briefing on the first session, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that 16 cardinals opened debate on issues ranging from 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 the Catholic faith," the spokesman said. Papal primacy is a key issue in ecumenical dialogue.

Cardinal Francisco Alvarez Martinez of Toledo, Spain, said that just as the relations between capital and labor dominated the social doctrine of the 19th century, the family must be the dominant theme of the 21st century. He said this includes questions of human sexuality and the need for "ethical behavior between men and women."

Navarro-Valls said Cardinals William Keeler of Baltimore and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles underlined the importance of the mass media as tools for evangelization.

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

"The church doesn't need mending here and there," Slovak Cardinal Jozef Tomko, who recently retired as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, told the meeting. "It needs an extraordinary mobilization to reaffirm that sanctity is the normal condition of everyone in the church."

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

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

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

Lustiger said that some make hidden idols of the means to achieve power, happiness, profit, glory or vanity. But, he said, "Human means cannot substitute for the divine ends of the church."

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