The pope has asked all 183 cardinals to attend the three-day meeting, including 44 new cardinals just appointed in February, making it the largest College of Cardinals in history.
Speaking Sunday to some 20,000 faithful in St. Peter's Square, the pope said the meeting would allow for reflection on the role of the Roman Catholic church in the third millennium.
|Pope John Paul II greeted faithful gathered in the St. Edith Stein parish in the outskirts of Rome Sunday|
But Vatican watchers and the cardinals will have another issue on their minds, too. Since it was formed in the year 1150, the principal job of the College of Cardinals has been to elect a new pope. And the field is considered wide open at the moment. Dozens of names appear on the list of Vatican watchers and odds-makers alike.
Even though John Paul is planning trips and events into the year 2002, he just celebrated his 81st birthday and his health is frail, which is why this consistory has been dubbed a pre-conclave, a reference to the gathering that elects popes, an idea the Vatican shrugs off.
"I think it would be a misconception from the point of view of anybody that thought that this was sort of 'antipasto' or almost like the Iowa Caucus for the conclave," said Monsignor Timothy Dolan, rector of the North American College in Rome. "That would be out of line and that wouldn't be what was intended."
But few doubt succession to Pope John Paul II will be a topic of quiet dinner conversation. The consistory provides a rare chance for the voting cardinals to assess those of their fellows who are considered "papabile," literally "pope-able," candidates to be the next pope.
"It is an exercise of fundamental evaluation for the distant future when it will be necessary to select the successor," wrote Vatican watcher Marco Tosatti in the newspaper La Stampa.
John Paul has named all but 10 of the 134 cardinals from 61 countries eligible to vote in a conclave. Most share his conservative views, although there are differences.
The cardinals will be taking into account ag, vision and nationality, including the question of returning an Italian to the papacy after more than two decades of a Polish-born pope.
Latin America, with 27 cardinals, is one of the largest voting blocs, and there has been speculation that a future pope will come from that region. But Italy, with 23 cardinals, is still the country with the largest number.
What no one will do over the next few days, reports Pizzey, is openly lobby for the job of successor to John Paul. Not only is it considered bad form, it also runs afoul of an old saying: "He who enters the conclave as pope emerges as cardinal."
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