The pope in Rome may be Polish, and their hearts swell with ethnic pride at the thought, but there is almost zero chance that members of the Polish National Catholic Church of America will forsake their nearly 80 years of independence and return spiritually to Rome.

That is the opinion of the Most Rev. Thomas J. Gnat, one of three priests of the church who were consecrated as bishops yesterday in Scranton, Pa., where the church's national St. Stanislaus' Cathedral is located.

"No, I don't think so," responded Gnat to a question about reunion of the American Polish communion with Rome. "We are too used to our democracy -- our bishops are elected by delegates to our general synod and they (the synods) are made up about 4 to 1 of laymen."

Seated next to his wife in the living room of their rectory-home near Bethesda Naval Hospital, he didn't bother to mention another major difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the PNCC -- the married priesthood.

The PNCC began at the turn of the century, with the migration of hundreds of thousands of Polish immigrants to this country.

"They came to this land of the free and they saw their neighbors in the Protestant church down the street where they owned their own property," explained Gnat.

For the immigrants seeking a toehold in the new country, that became an important issue.

In addition, they found the Roman Catholic Church here was manned almost entirely by German and Irish priests and bishops. "How could you go to confession to a priest who didn't speak Polish?" Gnat challenged.

In the Pennsylvania coalfields, upstate New York, New England, Chicago -- wherever the Polish immigrants gathered -- the Polish congregations grew.

Their newfound spirit of independence rankled under the requirement of the Roman Catholic Church that the churches and schools they had worked and sacrificed to build belonged to the church instead of to them. Orders by unsympathetic -- and non-Polish -- bishops to cease teaching Polish language and culture in their parish schools further exacerbated the situation.

In 1897, in a move that was to be echoed in post-Vatican II Roman Catholic parishes 70 years later, a delegation of Polish coal miners and factory workers who belonged -- and contributed -- to the imposing Sacred Heart Church in Scranton requested lay representation in parish affairs.

They were refused. When some of them tried to block the entrance of the church, the bishop called the police, and 52 persons were arrested.

The Polish worshipers withdrew, organized their own church and called a Polish-born priest, the Rev. Francis Hodur, who developed a network with other dissident groups.

In 1898, the young priest traveled to Rome to plead the case of his people, but he was rebuffed and ultimately excommunicated. In 1904, the Polish National Catholic Church held its first synod, elected Hodur bishop, and directed that the Latin liturgy be translated into Polish.

Today, the PNCC has about 282,000 members in five dioceses and is closer in practice to the Episcopal Church than the Roman Catholic.

By now, of course, most of the members are second- or third-generation Polish-Americans, and English is the dominant language. "I celebrate in Polish every other Sunday, but only about 10 people in my congregation speak conversational Polish," Gnat acknowledged.

In Washington, where Gnat has been a pastor for 20 years, the congregation gathers each Sunday morning in the Bethlehem Chapel of Washington Cathedral. "The congregation owns this rectory and they've been saving money to build a church, but --" he indicates that there is no urgency about having their own church.

Gnat said that when young people of the church go away to college or to work in an area where there is no Polish church, pastors advise them to attend the nearest Episcopal Church.

That presents a problem in the future, however, for the same synod meeting that elected Gnat a bishop also voted to break off intercommunion agreements with the Episcopal Church because of the latter's decision to ordain women.

Without actually saying so, Gnat indicated that he did not favor the move -- he was, after all, chairman of the intercommunion commission. He speculated that the church may change its mind again under the leadership of a new prime bishop, the most Rev. Francis C. Rowinski, elected at the same time Gnat was.

Anyway, he speculated "the woman question will erupt soon in our church." Two women are currently studying in the denomination's seminary, he said.

As might be expected of an ethnic church, the PNCC is not growing, but is in fact, losing members. It also suffers from a shortage of priests.

For the past five years Gnat has served both the congregation here and a larger church in Baltimore.

"You wouldn't believe what my wife and I do on Christmas," he told a visitor. "In Baltimore we have the Christmas eve midnight mass at 9 o'clock -- I love to announce: 'Midnight mass will be at 9 o'clock.'

"After mass we have a reception for the choir and board members and a little traditional ritual called 'sharing the wafer.' So we have the wafer -- it's a special wafer and each takes a piece and shares it with one other person, and we have some wine and Polish sausage.

"Then we come down here," and have the midnight mass in Bethlehem Chapel, he continued, "and have the same thing with the group here.Then I get about three hours' sleep and drive back to Baltimore for the 9 o'clock service Christmas morning."

This year it will be different. After two more Sunday services here, the Gnats, with their 12-year-old son, Joseph, will head for Manchester, N.H., where all of New England will be his diocese and his parish.