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Pope opens meeting with cardinals

In a mix of the ancient and the modern, like one cardinal's mobile phone ringing during silent prayer, cardinals from around the world began on Monday to ponder the challenges facing the church and who might lead it after Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican said 155 of the 183 cardinals attended the start of the three-day meeting, making it the largest gathering of cardinals in history.

Initial statements by cardinals on church unity and the role of the pope, evangelisation and the need to spread the church's message through the media indicated the discussions will be wide ranging.

Before the cardinals began their discussions behind closed doors, the prelates joined the pope in prayer interrupted when a mobile phone in the pocket of one cardinal rang loudly before he reached into his pocket and turned it off.

The Holy Father and several top Vatican cardinals addressed the closed-door meeting before general discussions began.

The Pope, noting that the cardinals have come from all over the world and from different cultural backgrounds, said the meeting reflected the church's "unity, universality and missionary work", according to a text distributed by the Vatican press office.

16 cardinals spoke in the morning session, according to an account by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, touching on issues on church unity, evangelization and use of the media to carry the church's message.

"Fidelity to the pope is an integral part of Christianity," Navarro-Valls quoted a Brazilian cardinal, Eugenio de Araujo Sales, as saying.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles suggested the Vatican draw up a guide on the pope's call for a new evangelisation, noting the difficulty of spreading the church's message in his archdiocese of more than 5 million people.

"As my priests and religious try to minister to such large numbers of Catholics, one reality we face is that so many are not fully and deeply evangelized, and in too many cases, are barely catechised," Mahony said.

The Vatican said John Paul will attend all morning and afternoon sessions of the consistory, but did not indicate whether any document or statement would be issued its close. On Thursday, he will celebrate Mass with the cardinals, who will later join him for lunch.