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Cardinals gather in Rome for consistory

Nearly all the Church's 183 cardinals have begun a four-day meeting in Rome to discuss the future of the Church.

The consistory is an ancient form of Church government revived by Pope John Paul II at the beginning of his pontificate.

At the meeting the cardinals can give their opinions on such subjects as reform of the Roman Curia and Church finances. The agenda for this meeting - the future of the Church at the beginning of the new millennium - means that practically any subject can be brought up for private discussion. The meetings are held behind closed doors. But the official Vatican spokesman - who sits in on the deliberations - gives a briefing after each session.

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger from Paris was due to deliver a keynote speech yesterday. The cardinal, of Polish Jewish origin, is a convert to Catholicism.

On Thursday the Pope will host a lunch for the cardinals at the end of a solemn mass in St Peter's.

One of the oldest cardinals taking part is 95-year-old Franz Koenig, former head of the Austrian Church, who was given his red hat by Pope John XXIII 43 years ago. He has recently gone on the record criticising Rome's centralist policies and suggesting that the primacy the Pope claims over other Christian denominations may be a hindrance to better interreligious relations. Pope John Paul, despite his frailty and age - he celebrated his 81st birthday last week - is currently striving to build bridges with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which separated from Rome nearly 1000 years ago.

In an apostolic letter the Pope wrote last January - Novo Millennio Ineunte - he said the Church had to promote justice in a world where the few live in a technological paradise while the majority suffer dire poverty.

While discussion of who is to succeed Pope John Paul when he dies is formally taboo, commentators suggest that informal behind-the-scenes discussions about the sort of leader that the Church needs at the beginning of the new millennium cannot be avoided, even though this crucial decision can only be taken when cardinals under the age of 80 meet in conclave upon the death of the Pontiff.