The Pope meets with cardinals on the future direction of the church

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis on Tuesday wrapped up two days of closed-door meetings with about 180 cardinals, many of them young enough to elect a future pontiff, including discussions on how the Catholic Church’s governance could become more inclusive .

The meetings focused on a new Apostolic Constitution that, among other things, allows lay people to lead important Vatican offices, envisioning greater decision-making roles for them, including women.

But since the church has closed the door on women in the priesthood, the most prestigious and ultimately most powerful roles – including the pontiff – remain the realm of men.

The reforms also give more institutional weight to efforts to combat the sexual abuse of clergy. The document, made public earlier this year, replaced the constitution written by Saint John Paul II in 1988.

Francis on Saturday elevated 20 ecclesiastics to that rank, including 16 younger than 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave to elect new pontiffs.

Until Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to do so, conclaves in recent centuries followed the deaths of popes. Francis, who is 85, has said resignation can be a valid option for pontiffs who cannot adequately fulfill their role as leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

However, he has dismissed talk that he is considering quitting, despite health problems, including a bad knee that requires frequent use of a wheelchair.

In his homily at the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to close the meetings, Francis did not elaborate on this week’s discussions. However, he urged the cardinals, who are known as “princes of the church”, to guard against “the cancer, the worm of worldly spirituality”.

While we are in Rome these days, cardinals from all over the world could match each other. The meetings, including informal ones, allow them to see who might have the potential to become a future pope as well as ponder possible alliances – between geographic groups or between like-minded churchmen from more conservative or more progressive factions.

The Vatican said that among the issues discussed were the role of lay persons, financial transparency, the administrative structure of the Vatican bureaucracy as well as how to “proclaim the Gospel in an age like today”.

Francis has worked to reform the Holy See’s finances, including its multimillion-dollar investments, one of which is at the center of an ongoing Holy See lawsuit involving, among others, a Vatican cardinal.

Francis has sought to make the church more welcoming to those who may feel unwelcome, including LGBTQ Catholics, or undervalued, including women.

On Monday, half a dozen female activists protested as the cardinals, in their iconic red cassocks, flocked to the meeting on Vatican grounds. The women held red umbrellas with slogans that read: “Sexism is a cardinal sin.” Other slogans were: “It’s Reigning men” and “Odain Women”.

One of the protesters, Miriam Duignan, lamented that the cardinals “will talk about the future of the church without half the congregation.”

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Sabrina Sergi contributed to this report.

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