They came looking like any other group of professional men who might rent a room at the Mayflower for a reunion, but amid the usual swirl of cigarette smoke and the dance of ice cubes in a glass of Scotch, were smiles of greeting born of memories that sear minds and emotions in indelible ways. Ten years ago, they had been bound together by a baptism in passion and intensity that changed them all, and the years had left them to make their separate peace with a question of conscience that had changed their lives.

Ten years ago, they had been 44 of the brightest young priests in the Archdiocese of Washington who together with their lay supporters had disagreed with their cardinal's stand on the pope's encyclical on birth control, and they had been punished for their beliefs, (suspended, in most cases, from part or all of their priestly duties.

"It was simply a cyclical thing," said Jack Corrigan. who works now as a regional director for the Federal Economic Development Administration, as old friends came to greet him. "It was inevitable in an institution as large and complex as the church. It hasn't been a negative experience. There's been a certain sadness, a certain sense of 'what if?' but there has been growth as well. I feel very good about what I'm doing now."

"It was a fun time, in the end," said one former priests who did not want to be named. "We were giving people options. I don't think I'll ever have more intense friendships and experiences than I did then. Meetings until 2 in the morning . . . Now it's more of a 9-to-5 thing for men and my wife, but then that's true of the times in general now."

Most of them are teachers, government officials, company executives, and lawyers. Only a handful have remained active in the priesthood. And now, despite the decade past, it was still difficult for many to talk about the events of that year to a stranger in any but the most abstract terms.

After all, it was a party, and so there was practically no formal program. A few leaflets that called the faithful to rallies and marches had been brought along for old time's sake. A poem, written by an absent member of "The Class of 63," as they called themselves, was read, and there were a few words from Corrigan, who was one of the leaders of the priests back then and has been considered by many colleagues "definitely bishop material."

Corrigan read the poem to the group of about 160 men and women, priests, former priests and the laity that had supported them. It was called "D.C. - 1963," and it had been written by Daniel C. Maguire, a former priest now teaching at Marquette University. It began, "The goal was clear/In that fatal year./This encyclical/We had to foil./But then there arose/In authoritative pose./The figure of/Cardinal O'Boyle." It ended, "It is at best/A grand deception to tie the faith/ To anticontraception./ Here's the thesis/We'll nail to the door./We love the Church./But the truth even more."

Corrigan talked about the "the sense of caring that is the theme of this group," and about how the issues of 1968 were still alive now, and about coming together to "celebrate the vision" that brought them together then. He quoted Hemingway's description of Paris in the 1920s as "a moveable feast," and he said that "no matter where we go and how long we live, the events of 1968 will stay with us." They too, he said," were a moveable feast."

Father Paul Norton sat back, smoking a cigarette, his white priest's collar distinctive in the darkness. Talk of that time 10 years ago came in measured fashion, each phrase weighed carefully before it was spoken, the emotion invested in that bitter battle banked away now, in whatever vaults and been built to hold it.

It was, he said, "very difficult, even after 10 years" to assess that time. "I suppose history will have to tell us what to think about it." He had mixed feelings now, but no, he did not think it a moveable feast. "At some point," he said. "You have to let go."

Back then, though, in the torrents of the '60s, there was no room for reserve.

The fulcrum of their crisis turned on the publication in the summer of 1968 of "Humanae Vitae," Pope Paul's encyclical banning birth-control devices, but it had begun long before that. They had been young priests, street priests, many in city parishes, advocating active participation and innovation in the church on all levels, from folk masses to racism teach-ins. The distance between them and the traditionalism and conservatism of 72-year-old Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle grew wider, colder and more impassable.

Catholics, said the cardinal, were "bound in conscience" to follow the pope's teaching. "In conscience," Catholic couples might disagree, said the priests, who, in the confessional, had heard of practicing Catholics who practiced birth control.

While in other dioceses, accommodations were reached, in Washington there was confrontation.

There were rallies and demonstrations and candlelight processions, hundreds of Catholics walking out of sermons the cardinal preached at St. Matthews Cathedral, petitions signed by thousands, daily press conferences, daily newspaper articles.

Cardinal O'Boyle sent a letter to the faithful, to be read by the pastors one Sunday, and in it he quoted Deuteronomy, a reference, he said, to "false ideas" of freedom of conscience. "The wrath and the jealously of the Lord will blaze against such a man; every curse written in this book will fall on him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven."

The cardinal called the priests in one by one, they say, to an austere and quiet room in the chancery, and there, flanked by silent priests, he questioned each man on his beliefs. The priests would gather at a nearby Holiday Inn and mark the fate of each on a chart - time in, time out, penalty levied.

The punishments varied, but most of them were suspended from some or all of their priestly duties - some evicted from their rectories, others forbidden from hearing confessions or teaching, others restricted to celebrating Mass at 7 a.m. or celebrating it in solitude.

Some of them knew from the beginning that no reconciliation was possible. Others took years to reach that conclusion. Eventually they dispersed, to find new lives and identities, to find accommodation with past and future.

Joe O'Connell has a fighter's face, the look of a man who knows how to take it. He has 30 minutes to spare and his sentences are short and say more in caesuras.

His suspension from his priestly duties was followed by serious illness, a blood clot that nearly killed him. He worked for the government, and finally, after taking night classes, at the job he has now, as a lawyer in the Prince George's county attorney's office. He celebrated the Mass in the nursing home where he had convalenced until 1974 when he married.

No, he says, there was no trauma in the transition, it was "extremely easy," "I never held myself up as something special because I was a priest." He is still on good terms with Cardinal O'Boyle. He is an active Catholic, although he does not go to the parish that would be his georgrahically. And he does not give to the general collection, the one that goes to the Archdiocese of Washington. Instead he has made arrangements to see that his donations go to help the elderly poor.

Of the time and its tumult, he says little. "I'm a realist. The Church just wasn't ready to change then. You live in the life and the style of the times you live in. With the extra degrees I had, I could have gone places in the church. I don't like it - but what are you going to do? If you have a realistic faith, you're going to take it on the chin."

And yes, he does keep up, with the Church and its changes. "I'd match theological arguments with anyone," he says. "In English or in Latin." GET 3-cm dash

Joseph O'Donoghue was the first of the priests to be disciplined. The cardinal gave him 20 minutes warning before showing up at his rectory one Saturday and gave him until the following Wednesday to leave.

Now he is a tenured professor of sociology at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., and he speaks of those times with an enthusiasm untamed by the passage of time.

"People kept saying, 'Why, why, won't it all settle down after awhile?' But I really felt we had to take a stand. It was," he said, "the Pickett's Charge, the Gettysburg of the old order."

He feels it could never happen again the way it did then. "These young guys coming out of the seminary now, a lot of them don't think in terms of being a priest for life anymore. They say, 'I'll give it five, 10 years, and see what happens.' We used to get our marching orders from the bishop every week.These guys, they don't even open their mail."

The events of 1968 did not leave him cynical. "I'd seen too much by then. But I think it was total trauma for some of the Galahads."

As a professor, able to speak out on the issues, to discuss them with his students, he feels more fortunate than some of his colleagues who found themselves in more restrictive lines of work. "A lot of that group ended up in the government, GS 12s, 13s, 14s; they're really part of the system now, locked in an organization. A very real part of their lives is closed now; 1963 was the last time they took a stand.You don't know what that means if you've never been in a pulpit, able in at least a small way to help change people's lives."

He is still a priest, he feels. "You're a priest forever. I don't do liturgical rites now, but I never was any good at it. It's a specialist's job. But I convey the tradition I am a part of and what I do in the classroom is a lot of what it was about for me in the first place."

His wife, Mary Anne, a former nun, teaches in a Catholic university. "It was a quirk of fortune, but I think we both feel we can do more now of what we wanted to do in our present set-up. Someone once said to me that I should have paid O'Boyle to do what he did to me. And in a way that's true. By the time you're ordained you've learned real displine, obedience - I'd have never done on my own what I'm doing now. Indirectly, by doing what he did, O'Boyle simply handed me my next assignment."

"No one got any support from the diocese emotionally or financially or in terms of their careers. No doors were opened for us," says George Spellman now. "How many institutions don't make at least some kind of effort when an employe leaves? And these were some of the brightest men in the diocese. Who ever heard of a hospital firing 44 of its best doctors?"

A stocky man whose face is etched in the lines of pragmatism and practical experience, Spellman works as an executive of a national nonprofit volunteer organization, one he prefers not to have mentioned by name.

THe had been a priest for 10 years when the confrontation came, an assistant pastor of our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Anacostia, a poor parish, 90 percent of the congregation black. Hiw own involvement with the Class of '68 began in the heady atmosphere of the theological discussion at Catholic University at the time and a monthly discussion group that the priests called "Scotch and Scriptures," which met at a different rectory each month.

He talks about that time in a dispassionate tone now. He remembers the day the letter from O'Boyle came, the one, and his pastor asked him to read it to the congregation. "It certainly wasn't my perception of who I was," he says. "I went out and had a cigarette until it was over."

And when the time came, and he was suspended from his duties, he left, with $50 given him by his pastor. He began to train VISTA volunteers, and moved to a job with the ACTION program and to his present job. In time, too, had come the realization that there was no going back. He had undergone slow and subtle shifts in identity from "Father Spellman" to the family man, with a house in Shepherd Park.

He is proud of the way that those in his group have made a success of their lives, many of them in careers with community and public service. He is active in community and volunteer work in an untraditional parish in Silver Spring.

Yes, he says, they were caught in a particular time and circumstance, and the crisis that preciptated his leaving would be handled differently now.

"You play the game with thc cards you're dealt," he says. "And the cardinal was holding the trump. But in the end, it wasn't a moral problem, or a theological or an ecclesiastical problem. In the end, it was a personnel-management problem."

By about 10:30 Saturday night, the cash bar was closing, the hors d'oeuvres had disappeared, and the people who remained were regrouping to continue their reunion in smaller numbers. Jerry Schaller, who had been an active member of the laity in support of the priests, sat and sipped a drink between conversations with old allies.

"I often wonder, if they could have held out long enough, if things would have changed and the whole thing would have happened differently," he said. "I don't think it really made a great impression on the Church and I think some of them are disappointed that it didn't. I think that if something happened, if there was a change in the hierarchy's attitude, you'd see a lot of them back in there."

As she was leaving, one woman waved to one of the former priests and said," George, next time you have a cause, just let me know. I'm ready."