In Rome, the old houses look inward. Their outer walls are kept deliberately plain, even drab, and their openings to the outer world are fortified -- strong shutters on the windows; big, heavy doors; fierce-looking metal gates at the automobile entrances. Inside, there may be a sunny, open courtyard with grass, trees and a fountain, sheltered from the turmoil of the streets. But the attitude presented to the world is a defensive one -- guarded and secretive.

For centuries, the Vatican's Curia, the central administration of the Roman Catholic Church, has seemed like one of these houses -- at least to outsiders. The Curia is the oldest functioning bureaucracy in the world and, when it wants to be, one of the most efficient. By reputation -- particularly among Catholics, who are most affected by its works -- it is also the most inbred, secretive and reactionary bureaucracy this side of Moscow or Peking.

"It is the last absolute monarchy in the Western world," says one priest in Rome who is not a member of the Curia. "And like all absolute monarchies, it specializes in secrecy, rumors and gossip. Everything depends on who has the ear of the ruler. At the moment, there seems to be a lot of confusion, because nobody knows who has the ear of Pope John Paul II."

"It's an oligarchy," according to another priest. "It's a small, self-centered group, wrapped in privileges and isolated from the gritty, daily realities of life. The Vatican has its own private gas station and shopping center, and the monsignori of the Curia get special treatment -- no waiting in line for them. They have their own style, which they try to impose on others. The old timers go around the streets dressed in their black cassocks and galeros -- the shallow, broad-brimmed Roman hat. They ask the young priests to dress like that, too, but it's not working so well anymore. It's changing. With John Paul II, it will have to change."

Historically, the Curia has behaved like all bureaucracies, which tend to proliferate, to become more complicated, to devote more energy to their own inner dynamics than to their assigned work, and to erect walls of paper and words between themselves and the outside world. It has had long centuries to perfect these practices. Efforts at reform have been made by various popes, but until the Second Vatican Council such efforts had only a limited, temporary success.

There is no general agreement on how well the latest reform effort is working. People in the Curia -- at least those willing to talk to the press -- claim that there has been great progress, and point to the internationalization of the Curia's staff and the growing number of laymen and women involved in its activities. Outsiders concede that there has been some change but remain skeptical.

The question is important, because the work of the Curia affects the lives of more than 700 million Catholics around the world, including nearly a quarter of the American population.

For Catholics, Vatican City is a moral equivalent of Washington, D.C., and the various offices of the Curia are the equivalent of the White House, Congress (without an opposition party), the cabinet offices and the Supreme Court.

Sometimes one office has acted like all these arms of government at once. The Annuario Pontificio, the 2,000 page official yearbook of the Vatican, devotes 111 pages to the confusing network of sacred congregations, tribunals, pontifical commissions, secretariates and councils that make up the Curia. It notes casually in passing that "there is no formal distinction in the church between legislation and administration." The sacred congregations often acted in a judicial manner, the Annuario adds, until St. Pius X introduced the distinction between judicial and administrative functions in 1908. Some of them still do.

The Curia began taking its modern form shortly after the Reformation (which may be partly responsible for the traditional defensive, closed-in attitudes of which so many Catholics have complained), but it grew out of such institutions as the Papal Household and the Apostolic Chancery, which date back to the early centuries of the Catholic Church. Some offices remained in existence long after they had stopped being useful, but most of those were abolished by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council. One such office was that of the Praefectus stabuli, the perfect of the papal stable, which is mentioned in historic records as early as the year 590, and was for centuries reserved for a member of the Roman nobility. At the same time he abolished this office in 1968, the pope also changed the colorful name of the Chamberlains of Sword and Cape to the simpler Gentlemen of His Holiness. Under the new name, they remain what they were: members of the Roman nobility with purely ornamental functions.

The earliest of the sacred congregations, established in 1542, was the ominously named Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition, later changed to the Holy Office and now known as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It no longer challenges the astronomical findings of Galileo or publishes the Index of Forbidden Books, but its assigned duties still include "the examination of new doctrines . . . the reprobation of those which are found contrary to principles of the faith; the examination and, if necessary, condemnation of books." It recently condemned a study by American theologians of questions related to sex and marriage. It still acts as a tribunal for the trial of crimes against the faith ("the most ample faculties are allowed for defense," the Annuaric notes comforting; and it retains the reputation of being one of the most conservative offices in the Vatican.

This conservatism is shown in its style of operation as well as its decisions. It's staffed almost entirely with priests and prelates, having only two laymen and two nuns in minor clerical roles among the 78 persons associated with it in the current Annuario listing. It is also one of only two sacred congregations (the other is the Sacred Congregation for Bishops) where the priests on the staff are required to work in the traditional cassock rather than a modern suit. Elsewhere in the Curia, priests are "encouraged" to wear the cassock during working hours, but nobody bothers them if they decide not to. The point may be more significant than a matter of convenience and comfort, having pockets readily accessible and not having to worry about tripping over the hem of your cassock when you are climbing stairs. Some Vatican observers interpret the wearing of a black or gray clerical suit (called a "clergy man" by the Romans as a sign of modern ideas, and the cassock as a badge of conservatism. Like many ideas about the Curia, this theory is interesting and sometimes useful, but it's not a good idea to push it too far.

At an opposite extreme from the old, established congregations such as Doctrine are the "postconciliar" offices set up in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, imbued with its spirit and bearing such modern names as "Family Life," "Christian Unity" and "Justice and Peace." The Pontificial Council for the Laity and the Justice and Peace Commission, for example, have laymen and women as substantial majorities both on their working staffs and as voting members of their boards -- though they are still presided over by a cardinal, like the older offices.

The atmosphere in these offices seems to be much more relaxed than in the traditional congregations -- in the dress code, for example, as well as the acceptance of women, who were unheard of in the Curia, even as typists, a generation ago.

"The rule about cassocks is still on the books," says an American priest from one of the postconciliar offices, "but nobody in our place pays much attention to it. I was wearing my suit when Pope John Paul came to visit our office, and he talked to me for a few minutes without being shocked to see me out of uniform. I must admit, though, that some of my colleagues here played chicken and rushed to put on cassocks when they heard the pope was coming."

According to one rumor heard around Rome, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the primate of Poland, has made it a policy to have at least one Polish representative in each of the important offices of the Curia. This ties in vaguely with loose talk about a mysterious "Polish Mafia" at the Vatican (a curious expression in Italy) and with an amazing statement made privately by a priest who is usually one of the best-informed in Rome: "We know that the only advisers the pope listens to are two Polish priests, but we don't know yet who they are."

The Vatican, of course, will not say how many Poles are on its payroll -- let alone who are the pope's secret advisers. All the important names, presumably, are somewhere in the Annuario, and a check of its pages on the Curia does reveal, in fact, quite a few Polish names strategically distributed. But the results of such a search are ambiguous. A few of the Polish names thus tracked down (like a few of the Italian names noted in passing) belong to American citizens.

"I do not know of any such policy," says a Polish priest in one of the sacred congregations when asked about Polish infiltration of the Curia, "but I think it would be a good idea for the bishops of any country -- and good for the Curia, too."

Before Vatican II, it was not uncommon for a prelate to spend 40 or 50 years working in the same curial office, gradually making his way to the top, building himself a small, bureaucratic empire and becoming more conservative with each passing year.

Now, there is a limited term for top management, as well as the mandatory retirement rule under which cardinals lose their voting rights when they pass their 80th birthday. These may be the most important reforms introduced into the curia since 1588.

But it is still possible, particularly for an Italian, to make a career as a minor official in the Curia. This may lead, eventually, to a new kind of problem -- temporary executives at the top and temporary foreigners at all levels meeting bureaucratic resistance from a hard-core, basically Italian, career civil service. Some foreigners at the Vatican see this as a possible problem but concede that it will take more time to know whether their fears are purely theoretical.

One priest who is the only American in his congregation (and is called "1' Americano" by the doorman who finds his barbaric, non-Italian name hard to pronounce) is both enthusiastic and defensive about his Italian colleagues. "In the office," he says, "they are very friendly and helpful, although I know that to outsiders they can seem extremely uptight, formal and cautious. Some of them have tried being open with the Italian press and they have been very badly burned."

This raises a point that has been observed by many American reporters in Rome, and it supports a theory that the Vatican Press Office is so hard to deal with because it is used to dealing primarily with the Italian press. The question becomes a variation on the familiar chicken-or-the egg theme: which came first, the curious style of the Italian press or the Vatican's press policies? Whatever the answer, a few days spent brousing at Roman newstands will convince an American that being discussed in some Italian newspapers is a fate that nobody deserves.

Another foreign priest in the Curia takes a somewhat more ambiguous view of international relations within the Vatican. "Some of my Italian freinds are very sincere," he says cryptically, "but some others are only a little bit sincere."

American or not, the Curia members who are willing to talk to an outsider give an unexpected impression of openness. They manage to do this in spite of a very strict rule of secrecy which they seem to respect. One priest described it, sitting in a small reception room, which is as far as outsiders get when they visit a curial office.

"You would have to take an oath of secrecy to get into the actual office," he said. "I took one on my first day here -- very solemn, kneeling down in front of a crucifix -- before they would let me come in."

In spite of such medieval ceremonies, Curia staff members like to think of themselves as a modern, efficient civil service -- professionals rising to new challenges, gathering and analyzing information to help the pope in making decisions and handling a load of paperwork that has grown immense. ("Immensa" was, in fact, the first word of the apostolic constitution with which Pope Sixtus V established the basic format and the various roles of the sacred congregations. That was in 1588, and the workload has grown steadily in the following 391 years.)

Several members gave the impression that the Curia is like an army, mobilized and ready to march but waiting for the general to choose the direction and give the command.

"The Holy Father knows very well how to be a bishop, but I think that for him the Curia is still a very strange place," says a veteran staff member. "All that we want are clear directions. Most of us are sincere, dedicated people, really at the disposition of the Holy Father. If we are told how to serve him, we will do it."

If the Curia is a strange place to him, John Paul is trying to ease the strangeness. He meets with the heads of the major curial offices, individually and as a group, much more frequently than Pope Paul VI, who knew the Curia inside-out and introduced virtually all of the significant modern reforms in its structure, but lacked the energy for day-by-day detail work in his final years. John Paul is also willing to bypass the usual Vatican chain of command. Under Paul, the work of the Curia was normally channeled to the pope through the Secretariate of State. John Paul not only confers regularly with Curia leadership but has visited the offices informally and chatted privately with officials who would never expect, normally, to engage in shop talk with the pope.

But consultation is not the same as direction."People who visit Pope John Paul usually come out feeling that they have done most of the talking," says an American veteran in the Curia. "he listens well and says very little." Most Curia staff people expect that when the pope does give them their marching orders it will be done not verbally, but by his own example and by the people he chooses for command positions.

Except for the Secretariate of State, where he has made some unsurprising replacements at the top, the pope has pointedly done nothing to shake up the status quo in the Curia -- and he bypassed a normal occasion for doing so in the months following his election. As an absolute monarch, he can make changes any time he chooses, and he seems to be gathering information now for guidance in such changes. A few Curia people expect a "Saturday night massacre" sometime, but they are a small minority. Much more likely, most people at the Vatican feel, are gradual replacements by attrition over the next five years. Several top offices will certainly come vacant by death or retirement in the next year, and one is already waiting for reappointment.

Perhaps the first clear sign of the orientation John Paul will want in the Curia will be his choice of a replacement for the late Cardinal Wright as prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy. At the Vatican, this is considered a key position, not only because most people at the Vatican are members of the clergy but because this congregation handles important issues (cases in which a bishop is charged with mistreating his priests, for example) and because it determines much of the style of clerical life, which is a basic ingredient in the style of the church.

Speculation about who will be chosen for this position is widespread, but no clear candidate emerges. There is considerable agreement, however, that it is not likely to be an American -- because if one American is chosen to succeed another, it will begin to be considered an American position (as the Department of Labor in the United States was for a long time considered the property of Catholics).

So far, John Paul's "teaching by example" offers little hope for those who would like to see the congregation headed by someone interested in seeking broad new horizons for the Catholic clergy. One of his few drastic changes in policy so far (which has been documented partially and piecemeal, but not publicly announced) has been a moratorium on the acceptance of applications from those who wish to leave the priesthood.

Compared to the absolute monarchy of the pope, the top positions in the Curia are only limited monarchies, but an American staff member cheerfully admitted that the work done in his congregation "is not a democratic process."

Besides general competence, a good reputation and being known in Rome, he said, linguistic ability is one quality these limited monarchs look for. "Last Saturday, I worked in five languages, and the guy next to me works in more than that. My main languages are English, of course, then Italian, which is still the basic working language, French and Spanish. And we still do a lot of work in Latin."

Normal work schedules at the Curia average out to about 33 hours a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and an occasional afternoon, taken in rotation, when one man stays on duty so the office will not be completely empty. In their free time, Curia members are encouraged to do some kind of pastoral work that will bring them into contact with rank-and-file Catholics. Many teach, and others say mass, preach or hear confessions at severely understaffed Roman parishes.

"This is a good idea," says "1' Americano." "The atmosphere in the Curia is totally different from that of parish life, which is what the church is all about. I'm glad that I had some parish experience in the United States before I came here."

One American, a long-time staff member, points out that "Top Vatican officials are paid less than a Roman bus driver; my sister pays more in income tax than I earn. Their willingness to work so hard for such small wages is a tremendous credit to the people in the Curia."

He also thinks it unlikely that people are attracted to the Vatican by a desire for power: "All staff power is very restricted and purely advisory," he says. "We report to the cardinal prefect, who can throw our work away if he doesn't like it. The cardinal prefect normally has to report to the pope through the secretary of state, and the pope makes the final decisions. So where is the power?

"There's not even personal gratification. In parish work, if you preach a good sermon or help someone, people will say 'thank you.' Not in the Curia."

So what kind of people work in the Curia? "It attracts low-profile people," says one of them, "people who enjoy working behind the scenes, people who are good at paperwork -- basically shy people."

Shyness might explain why the Curia looks like those inward-turned old Roman houses, but it is not a diagnosis with which many outsiders would agree. One priest-scholar who has devoted his life to academic work in Rome, and who seems an authentically shy person, had another explanation for what seems to be a collective identity crisis in the Curia:

"They're used to commanding," he said, "and they have not yet learned to lead."