Cardinals who attended an extraordinary meeting called by the pope also got to assess their peers as possible successors to Pope John Paul II and identify the challenges facing the church in the coming years.
These were the goals set by the 81-year-old John Paul when he summoned all the cardinals to Rome for three days of closed-door talks. Most of the 155 cardinals who attended headed home Thursday after celebrating Mass with John Paul in St. Peter's Basilica and joining the pontiff for lunch.
The frail pope, who suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease, spoke in a clear voice but appeared weak at times during the two-hour Mass.
"There is a very warmhearted communion with the Holy Father and around him, and all of us felt that now, in his physical weakness, this has grown stronger and probably more cordial than it ever was," Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, archbishop of Vienna, Austria, said after the Mass, meeting reporters under the colonnade of St. Peter's.
In February, John Paul named 44 new cardinals, expanding the College of Cardinals to 183 members, the largest number in history. There were so many new faces that cardinals said they found themselves sitting next to virtual strangers.
Some called it a "pre-conclave," referring to the assembly of cardinals under the age of 80 who vote for a new pope.
"In the sense that we get to know them, it is a preparation," said Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 67, of Belgium, who is mentioned as a possible candidate for pope. "But we didn't do any headhunting."
While some cardinals insisted that secrecy prevented them from releasing their remarks to the meeting, Danneels went ahead and openly criticized what he called a stifling of debate by the Vatican and even some of his peers for not speaking out for career reasons.
"Freedom of speech is an absolute condition for good management of the church," Danneels said.
In particular, Danneels and several others targeted periodic meetings of bishops, known as synods, saying discussions are guided by the Vatican. Critics say there is not enough time for bishops to deal with important issues in the meetings and that there is no encouragement of open debate.
Some cardinals would like to give more power to the local levels of the church, including the selection of bishops.
Other cardinals complained about the Vatican's heavy-handed approach.
One cardinal complained about the flood of Vatican documents and urged a seven-year moratorium on such paper to allow dioceses to implement what they already have.
In his homily, John Paul said many of the issues raised by the cardinals will be taken up in October at a synod of bishops.
The pope said the synod "has proved to be a valid and effective instrument of episcopal collegiality, at he service of the local church."
Collegiality is often used as a code word for democracy in the church. In a closing message from the cardinals distributed Thursday by the Vatican, the issue was not mentioned.
The cardinals strongly endorsed John Paul's efforts to improve relations with other Christians and other religions, offering prayers for the pope's pilgrimage next month to predominantly Orthodox Ukraine.
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