U.S. cardinals and archbishops filed into the Vatican Wednesday to begin an unprecedented four-day meeting with Pope John Paul II on the practices of the American Catholic Church, which have differed with orthodox methods.

The meeting brought together 35 leaders of the American church, the pontiff and 25 heads of Vatican departments to discuss issues, including abortion and birth control.The aim of the four-day conference is to devise the best ways of preaching the gospel in the United States, where many Catholics reject the church's strict orthodox rules on the emotional issues.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, 60, archbishop of Chicago and head of the U.S. delegation, said he hopes the encounter will give the pope and his top Vatican aides a clearer understanding of the problems faced by U.S. bishops.

"The overall theme of this meeting is evangelization," Bernardin said before meeting Pope John Paul.

"Each particular church is called to evangelize, to proclaim the redeeming message of Jesus' redeeming love, as handed down by the church in a specific cultural context," Bernardin said.

"We (U.S. bishops), on our part, as teachers of the faith, proclaim that gospel in a different and, at times, difficult set of circumstances," he said.

Bernardin said the freedom of speech and press inherent in U.S. society makes Americans accustomed to seeing institutions debate and decide major issues in public view.

"Americans are accustomed to exercising their basic freedoms by civil discourse, open to inquiry into any issue that touches upon the common good and the rights of the individual," he said.

"While, as a faith community, we operate according to different principles both in terms of our teaching and governance, I do not see these freedoms or their exercise as being in conflict with our faithfulness to the universal, Catholic tradition that is ours," he said.

The 35-member U.S. delegation includes the heads of all 33 metropolitan dioceses in the United States.

When they arrived Tuesday, the church leaders characterized this week's conference as a clearing of the air with the Vatican, but they did not foresee any major decisions to be made.