VATICAN CITY -- Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, one of the rising stars of the Roman Catholic church, is bringing a fresh face and fresh ideas from Honduras.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, one of Europe's most influential cardinals, carries a reputation as a forceful moderate unafraid of taboos.
And Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, an Italian, will share the spotlight as a prelate with long service at the center of church power.
The occasion is an extraordinary meeting of cardinals -- those recently elevated and those holding the red hat for decades -- in what is shaping up as the largest assemblage in history of the so-called princes of the church.
Some are calling it a "pre-conclave" -- referring to the gathering that elects a pope.
The three-day session that opens Monday will give them an opportunity to check out the beds in Santa Marta, the Vatican hotel built to house cardinals during a conclave, and to check out each other.
And while the meeting won't be in the Sistine Chapel, where conclaves are held, the location in the Synod Hall is just across St. Peter's Square.
Pope John Paul II summoned all 183 cardinals to the three-day meeting to discuss church strategy in the new millennium.
Vatican officials describe it as an open meeting with no fixed agenda. Talking points suggested by the Vatican include such issues as the church's missionary activities, the sharing of authority among bishops, the response of ordinary Catholics to church teaching on sex and the role of the papacy.
It is the first such meeting since 1994 and was called by the pope in February just days after he elevated 44 new cardinals.
Although John Paul is now in the 23rd year of his papacy and his ailments and age -- 81 on his birthday, Friday -- have visibly slowed him down, there certainly will be no public mention of succession.
Vatican officials dismiss such talk and John Paul's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, called the idea of a "pre-conclave" a misreading of the intent of the meeting.
But few doubt the cardinals will have that in mind and that their dinners will be peppered with such conversations. The so-called "papabiles," or papal prospects, are unlikely to forget that "each of their words will be weighed by their colleagues," as an Italian Vatican watcher, Orazio Petrosillo of Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper, put it.
"Every time someone gets up to speak, inevitably the question in the back of everyone's mind is, 'Will he make a good pope?"' said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit magazine editor and author of a book on the Vatican.
Of the record 183 cardinals, 134 from 61 countries are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a papal election. All but 10 of these men were named cardinals by John Paul, most of them sharing his conservative views.
The meeting will bring together those considered to have the stuff to be pope, the "papabiles," so-called kingmakers who will influence opinions inside the conclave and those who will merely exercise the most important function of a cardinal -- to cast a ballot in a papal election.
Since the pope has given them the opportunity, Reese said, the cardinals will want to know "how will this or that man go over in my country, in my diocese?"
It's not that people actually lobby for the job; such politicking is not considered career-enhancing in the exclusive club and is behind the phrase, "He who enters a conclave as pope exits as a cardinal."
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