VATICAN CITY — The sight of the scarlet swirling around the Synod Hall signifies that an august gathering is underway, but otherwise the cardinals were greeting old friends and new faces as if it was a class reunion — which in a way it is.

The whole college of Cardinals rarely meets, and so it can be years in between opportunities for everyone to meet everyone else. And the need for such meetings becomes more evident as the college grows bigger — 44 new cardinals were added last February.

“You are still alive!” exclaimed one African cardinal to another upon embracing him in the Synod Hall before the first session. With 183 members now, the vast majority in their 70s or older, it is not easy to keep track of who is who.

But some of the newcomers are better known than others.

Cardinal Avery Dulles had a regular stream of well-wishers, especially amongst the other theologian-cardinals, including Cardinals Walter Kasper and Christoph Schonborn. Cardinal Dulles jokingly refers to himself as the “bambino” of the college — he is the most junior on the order of seniority — even though at 82 he was the oldest of the new cardinals last February.

Yet as large as the college is now, when assembled all together in the Synod Hall — a plain facility in which the cardinals only fill half the available seats — it is clear that they are a small band of brothers given the size of the Church they lead. The consistory is a remarkably workmanlike affair, with the cardinals leaving their secretaries and entourages elsewhere.

The Holy Father, too, is more or less on his own, unaccompanied as he entered even by Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, his longtime secretary who is customarily at his side.

But when the Pope arrives, it is time to work — or rather, to pray. The consistory sessions open with prayers, and in the morning the cardinals pray together the “third hour” of the breviary. They begin, as is traditional in meetings of bishops, by singing the Veni Creator Spiritus, invoking the Holy Spirit.

After prayers, the journalists leave and the work of the consistory begins. It is mostly a matter of listening for three days to other cardinals speak — a sometimes difficult change of pace for prelates who are usually the featured speakers wherever they go.

“They listen to each other, mostly,” commented one observer inside the Synod Hall. “But they hope that in those many words they can listen to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit speaking to the churches.”

— Raymond de Souza