SISTER THERESA KANE'S modest, respectful challenge to Pope John Paul II in Washington in 1979 opened the floodgates of religious feminism in the United States and changed forever the aspirations of women in the Roman Catholic Church.
Consequently, the pope arrives in the New York area today and in Baltimore Sunday in the midst of a fierce debate among Catholics over his recent "Letter to Women."
Many traditionalists in the church praised the pope for standing by the all-male priesthood as not detracting from women's importance, while "lifting up the distinctive and complementary gifts which women bring to society," in the words of Cardinal William H. Keeler.
Feminists disagreed over whether the letter went far enough in modifying what they see as women's second-class status in the church - demonstrated by Vatican resistance to inclusive language in the liturgy as well as the bar to priesthood - and the pope's reputation as an unreconstructed defender of Catholicism's patriarchal history.
Even some radical dissidents, such as Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice, welcomed the letter as "largely a helpful document on the secular level and a good expression of women's rights."
By today's standards, what the mother superior of the Sisters of Mercy actually said in her soft voice that Sunday 16 years ago as she introduced the pope to an assembly of 5,000 nuns seems mild.
"I urge you, Your Holiness," Sister Theresa said, "to be open to and to respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the church as fully participating members."
In convents and parishes across the United States - and at the Vatican - those words spoken from the altar of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during the pope's first pastoral visit to this country were swiftly interpreted as they were intended: a direct response to John Paul's assertion in Philadelphia the previous Thursday that "the church's traditional decision to call men to the priesthood, and not to call women, is not a statement about human rights, nor the exclusion of women from holiness and mission in the church."
Sister Theresa Kane's unsolicited advice to John Paul drew a sharp rebuke of her "public rudeness" from many American Catholics, including nuns, but it strengthened the resolve of many others to change this or some future pope's mind about the woman's place in the sanctuary.
Pope John Paul has not backed down from the substance of what he had said. Nor has the Vatican eased up on its suppression of theologians' discussions of the possibility of women's ordinations.
But if the core of the pope's decree that female Catholic priests are an impossibility seems immutable, some observers within the church see a new papal style in what the Jesuit magazine America recently called "a major shift of attitude toward the global women's movement."
In the 19-page letter issued July 10 by John Paul, addressing "the heart and mind of every woman," he acknowledged that the church has been guilty of sexism.
"For this I am sorry," the pope said. "Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. As we look to Christ at the end of this second millennium, it is natural to ask ourselves how much of his message has been heard and acted upon."
Sister Theresa, who attended last month's United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, said from her residence in Yonkers, N.Y., this week that the pope's letter was "timely and helpful" as far as it went. But unfortunately, she said, John Paul "continues to see women as complementing men rather than as equal partners in the church."
But at America, while the Jesuit commentators praised the "generous spirit" of this new papal letter, they also warned prophetically, "Warily, Catholic feminists will take such words as demanding of the church itself no less than the pope demands of secular society - a profound change of attitude and organization that brings women into all decision-making processes."
Some American Catholic feminists and their supporters have been more skeptical.
The Women's Ordination Conference, an organization of Catholic sisters, clergy and laity that has promoted the idea of female priests for nearly 20 years, called the pope's letter to women a "Vatican smoke screen."
Ruth Fitzpatrick, national coordinator of the 4,000-member ordination conference, decried the "summary dismissals of 'dissident' Catholics from positions within the U.S. church," citing the recent firing of Sister Carmel McEnroy as professor of theology at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana because she signed a petition seeking a "dialogue on women priests."
It also said that "reports of similar reprisals from around the country continue to reach the WOC office" in Fairfax, Va., and "threats of more reprisals have clearly intimidated some potential registrants" for a national convention of Catholic feminists to be held in November.
Despite the hostility in some church quarters, Ms. Fitzpatrick said, more than 2,000 men and women are expected to attend the WOC convention in Arlington, Va., scheduled to coincide with an annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
Another organization seeking the pope's change of heart on the ordination of women is Catholics Speak Out, based in Hyattsville. It plans to circulate a letter to John Paul during his visit to Baltimore, stating that "thousands of Catholic women feel called to priesthood and hundreds of married priests yearn to return to ministry."
Warning that "inflexible policies" in the face of a worsening shortage of priests - as church membership continues to grow - threaten to deprive many Catholics of the Mass on Sundays, the organization accused the pope and other church leaders of "considering a male celibate clergy as more precious than our communities' need for the Eucharist."
Conservatives and liberals in the Catholic Church cite different percentages, but all agree that a majority of lay people now support the ordination of women. The extent of the support has increased steadily over the last two decades.
Gallup polls indicated that the ratio of American Catholics favoring female priests rose from 29 percent in 1974 to 36 percent in 1977 to 47 percent in 1985 to 67 percent in 1991. According to the Women's Ordination Conference, current studies show the Catholic laity "overwhelmingly in support of women's ordination."
A recent study commissioned by the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said 55 percent think the church should ordain women, 39.5 percent disagree and 5.5 percent aren't sure.
All groups within the church agree that the majority in support of allowing priests to marry has consistently been higher than for allowing women to be ordained.
While Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy is one of only a few members of the Catholic hierarchy who publicly support the ordination of women, Baltimore's archbishop, Cardinal Keeler, firmly backs Pope John Paul's adherence to the tradition of an all-male clergy.
Indicative of the split that remains among Catholics over the ban on female priests, however, is the failure of the U.S. bishops to produce a pastoral letter on women's concerns despite nine years of trying.
After soliciting the opinions of 75,000 Catholic women from around the country and then running into opposition from the Vatican, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Cardinal Keeler is president, has finally given up the effort to produce a document on women. The bishops tabled their fourth revision three years ago.