VATICAN CITY, Mar 23 (Reuters) Pope Benedict today began a brainstorming session with his top advisers on major issues facing the Church, including relations with Islam and how to bring breakaway traditionalist Catholics back into the fold.
Benedict held what the Vatican billed a ''day of prayer and reflection'' one day before he was due to elevate new cardinals to the elite group that will one day choose his successor.
A Vatican statement said three topics that were put forward for discussion during the day were relations with Islam, the retirement age of bishops and how to deal with traditionalists.
Sources said the main topic at a morning session was how to bring ultra-traditionalist Catholics known as the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) back into the Church.
The SSPX, founded by the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, rejects many of the reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council and is the only group to break away from Rome because of them.
It sticks to the old Latin Mass and opposes recognising the validity of other religions, particularly non-Christians.
''The Holy See directly raised the issue, which doubtless is a very delicate one,'' one prelate who attended the closed-door meeting said on the condition that he not be identified.
Late Pope John Paul sanctioned the excommunication of the traditionalist leaders in 1988 when Lefebvre defied his warnings and ordained four bishops without papal permission.
Under Benedict, the Vatican has been trying to open new lines of dialogue for a reconciliation with the traditionalists, who number about 1 million members or supporters worldwide.
The subject of the West's dialogue with Islam, highlighted by the recent controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, were due to be discussed in the afternoon following an address by a cardinal who is an expert on the subject.
The Pope's meeting at the Vatican involved more than 150 men who are already cardinals and the 15 new members who will receive their red cardinal's hat at the Vatican tomorrow.
BISHOPS' RETIREMENT AGE Another topic discussed was a greater, active role for bishops after they retire at age 75.
''I can assure you that it was a very worthwhile, helpful discussion,'' said Cardinal Edward Egan of New York.
Another participant, who asked not to be identified, was pleased the Pope was consulting his top prelates. ''Maybe this is a sign for the future,'' he said. ''This Pope is not afraid to hear the opinions of the cardinals.'' The meeting is the first time the 78-year-old German Pope and his cardinals have discussed the problems of the Roman Catholic Church since he was elected last April to lead a worldwide flock of 1.1 billion.
Among the other issues expected to be discussed are dialogue with other religions, the need for more vocations to the priesthood and the Pope's plans for changes in the Vatican.
Among those who will receive the red cardinal's hat tomorrow are Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II's secretary, and China's Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the pro-democracy bishop of Hong Kong.
Zen told Reuters in an interview this month he hoped to be able to mediate between the Vatican and Beijing's communist government, which does not allow Catholics to recognise the Pope's authority.
Another new cardinal is Boston Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, who is being recognised for his work cleaning up after the diocese's sex abuse scandal involving priests that forced his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, to resign in 2002.
After tomorrow's ceremony, known as a consistory, the Church will have a total of 193 cardinals, 120 of them under 80 and thus eligible to enter a conclave to choose a pope.
Reuters DKS BD2008