Roman Catholics like to say, "We deal in centuries." Their historians are ready now to declare that Pope Gregory the Great (died 604) was great. They are not yet sure how to measure someone as recent as Leo XIII (died 1903).

The mass media and the public move at a different pace. "We deal in minutes" -- or at least in days and weeks. Some have been trying to size up Pope John Paul II with the speed of instant replay during his tour. So it seems almost relaxing to review his whole first year in office.

The appraisers have good reasons to keep their fingers crossed, however. They could be wrong. Not a single observer is on record as having properly pegged Pope John XXIII after he had meandered through his first pointless year. John Paul II may have surprises up his cassock sleeve as well.

What is clear about the year is the pope's sense that he was getting good on-the-job training. He did not start from scratch. Most people who are close to him remark that he was from the first very sure of himself. If he has doubts tucked away alongside his faith, the pope has shown no evidence that they plague him. Clearly he is convinced of the truth and value of his church's teaching. But one needs more than conviction to be a successful pope today.

What John Paul seems to be learning is that a modern pope has no coercive power. He has to rely on persuasion. Some of his predecessors could command armies and make military alliances; they could tax and they could cause thrones to tumble. And they did. On more domestic scales, when they spoke, the faithful had to follow.

Today the situation has changed. When the pope speaks against abortion, the Catholic majority, because it finds the position convincing, applauds his view and follows him. When he declares himself against "artificial" birth control, the Catholic majority, because it has consulted its conscience and found the position unconvincing, ignores the official teaching. He can whip theologians into line and can silence dissenters, but every time he has to resort to such measures, a pope loses power and credibility. John Paul is an astute leader who would rather persuade.

Coming from Poland, he brought some liabilities to the office. Strange as this sounds, it's easy to be a Catholic where it's hard to be a Catholic. The Polish communist regime does the church a favor by forcing definitions on it, by giving people reasons to find a lure in it. In North America the church is more easily escapable: It blends and blurs into a hospitable culture.

This Polish outlook -- let's dignify it further and say that it comes from "the church under the cross of suffering" -- tended to blind the pope to other ways of thinking. His homeland is one of the few nations that produces an oversupply of priests. Given that background, he lacks personal reasons for exploring afresh whether the church should ordain women, whether priestly celibacy might be optional, or whether there might be a need to build the morale of priests and nuns through a third Vatican Council.

The American trip, like the Mexican and Polish visits before it, cannot help but provide the pope with an opportunity to amass the power he needs to persuade. His eloquence, his personal charm and his moral credibility are vivid instruments for acquiring such power. Critical theologians found it easy to attack Pope Paul VI, who often looked vulnerable. They think twice before they take on the popular new pope, who possesses a fine theological mind and has the backing of the masses. They will sometimes hear him scold them and they will often disagree with his views; but instead of issuing manifestos, they will more likely put the best interpretation on his phrases and try to buy time. They will also hope that he listens as well as he speaks on his visits.

The first year in Rome provided fewer clues to the future than most Vatican-watchers would like. The first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, had no clear focus or thrust. In it the pontiff was the church's uncle, introducing himself in a penned fireside chat. He spun out a philosophy of life that centers on an appropriate theme, "the dignity of the human person." Yet it aroused no great controversy. That's fortunate, say those who still feel the shock 11 years after Pope Paul's Humanae Vitae. That anti-birth-control document staggered the Catholic left. To keep the score even, the Catholic right found plenty to disagree with in Pope John's socially progressive Mater et Magistra and peace seeking Pacem in Terris. Given reactions to such letters, the new pope may have been wise to test first with a sprawling message.

Has the pope succeeded in cleaning house in the case of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy? Coming from outside Italy, he was at a disadvantage, and may be busy ingratiating himself before he makes moves. The Curia also "deals in centuries" and can probably outlast a man who might reign until the end of the century.

I am not one of those who assume that all bureaucracy is bad and all Italian-dominated bureaucracies worse, but I join those who watch for a clear signal as to exactly what his administrative style is to be, how his reformist impulses will look. No clear plot emerged during the first year. We know that there is sulking over salary on the part of 2,000 Vatican employees, some of whom advertised their discontent over the way his "volcanic dynamism," as they put it, has "taken you . . . perhaps too far away from us who are so close to you." It's hard to get contented servants these days!

Non-Catholics hear most questions about his ecumenical stand. Polish cardinals hardly ever meet Protestants, so predictions are widespread that Karol Wojtyla could never be sympathetic to Protestants. Nonsense. I've been saying all along that "not to know us is to love us" -- he may have some romantic notions about how intact the rest of the Christian world may be. Up close, he would have to deal with more chaos. He may be surprised to see how friendly conservative Protestant evangelicals have grown toward his kind of Catholicism. Some think he will work on Eastern Orthodox relations at the expense of the Western church, but the first year left no policies to confirm such hunches. Some Jews regretted that he did not make more, during his visit to his native Poland, of the death of Jews at Auschwitz; but he has not really tipped his hand on Jewish-Christian relations either as yet.

The American press has probably done the pope an injustice by deciding that John Paul is a conservative because of his views on the four issues I have mentioned above: abortion, birth control, ordination of women and priestly celibacy. Subtler issues will be greater tests for him. Schooled as he is in philosophy and theology and alert as he seems to be, the pope will keep up on the thought of Catholic laity and clerical theologians as they try to relate the church to modernity. His tilts have been toward tradition, as the whole world expected, but his moves have been cautious. The far right despises him because he has obvious enthusiasm for the teachings of Vatican II, but that far right has "gone over the hill" to movements like that of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who verges on formal schism. The far left has gone over no hill -- it merely drifted away.

Tensions remain, then, between those who believe that the church must first listen and respond to the cries and demands of people as they are today and then reach into its resources, versus those who say that the church must get and keep its own act together and then reach out and adapt where it can do so consistently. The pope belongs to the latter camp, but he cares about the former, and the two groups do at least have common concerns and motives for getting along. The fact that the first year leaves us with no "hard news" on this front may be a sign that a firm pope has decided not to polarize the factions or push one side too far.

Given his narrow range of choices, the pope probably did best, and may have hinted at a characteristic approach, when he visited Mexico. Would he be for or against "liberation theology," a pattern of Christian thought that sees things from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed -- often through the spectacles handed over by Karl Marx?

The pope gave no aid or comfort to Marxists or clerical ideologues. He may have underestimated the degree to which priests and nuns are and have to be leaders of people who suffer and work for change. But the overall effect of his speeches served to put the rich and the regimes on notice. He left no doubt but that God sides with the poor and the powerless -- a favorite theme of the liberationists. No one left Mexico completely happy, and no one went home mad.

You will often meet people from Eastern Europe who, three or four decades after Communist takeovers, boast that their regimes do grant religious freedom to the church -- so long as it huddles in the sanctuary and restricts itself to the worship of God. The pope knows such people well, and thinks instinctively with them. What he has not yet demonstrated is his ability to be as emphatic with Catholics who believe that the Christian message must penetrate all dimensions of the social system and cultural life. A year of on-the-job training has given a man who was an actor, a philosopher, a priest and an athlete an excellent chance to put his awesome talents to work.

Pope John Paul II has won the world's heart. Now he has to set out to capture his church's mind, and to see how to put its hands to work, without binding either.