After Vatican Two they made him president of something called the Secretariat for Non-Believers. He wasn't sure what it meant.

"I went to Pope Paul. I said, 'But what is it? What shall I do with it?' The pope shrugged and said, 'I don't know either." Then he said to me in Latin, 'Usus docebit .' 'The use will teach you.' And so it was."

Cardinal Franz Koenig, primate of Austria and not a bad man with an anecdote, chatted with several members of the press and Eunice Shriver yesterday morning at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown. The cardinal is in town as the first spring lecturer in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy lecture series. Though he is loath to admit it, he has long been considered a papabili -- a possible pope -- and a cardinal with wide influence in the papal conclaves. There is a three-page write-up on him in a book called "The Inner Elite, Dossiers of Papal Candidates."

Though he talked to the press yesterday of serious matters, like the thaw between Christians and Moslems, and the future of religion in Eastern Europe, he seemed willing enough to talk of lighter things, too.

Like the arrival of spring in Vienna. Or the new pope's old love for camping and skiing. Or his own unaccompanied jaunt the day before to the National Air and Space Museum. On that, he sounded a little like a new De Tocqueville.

"A European visitor -- and I am a modest one -- could not help to be impressed at this sight," he said, extending his arms in a kind of apostolic exclamation point. "You come in an instant to a full sense of your country's power as a nation. I thought, standing there, looking at those rockets that went to the moon, 'How this must inspire the American people.' Then I began to reflect on man -- not just his capacity but his limitations."

Franz Koenig, who is 73, who has been a priest for 45 years and a cardinal for 20, who is at home in a number of languages, speaks with the measured, graced dignity of someone who has been listened to in his life. He looks exactly like a high holy shepherd of the church ought to look -- rich woolen clerical suit (buttoned, of course) with a starched white collar and French cuffs. Silver bifocals. Gold pectoral chain. Hands smooth and pale as ivory; When he talks, he idly brings them to his lips in a prayerlike attitude. The smile is paternal.

But he isn't sanctimonious; no odor of piety. He starts off with a sober story about attending the funeral of Yugoslavia's Cardinal Stepinac some years ago, then veers off to an account of an auto accident he was involved in enroute.

"I lost consciousness. My secretary lost consciousness. Finally, I remember a man leaning in and saying, 'Are you really the archbishop of Vienna?' and I said, 'Yes, but it's not doing me any good now.'"

He was in a Yugoslav bed for over a week, he says; lucky it wasn't more. suddenly, he reaches up and pulls at his lower lip. "You see the scars of that today. I had six times broken my jaw."

This took place in the early '60s. It was the first time a Western prelate had gone officially behind the Iron Curtain in years. When he got back, Pope John summoned Koenig to Rome. He said he'd like to have Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary participate in Vatican Two, and would Cardinal Koenig go and ask him? Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was then already a world cause celebre , in his seventh year of political asylum in the U.S. legation in Budapest.

"I said, 'Well, Pope John, it's not so easy.'"

"He said, 'Forget it. You go to the railway station and you buy a ticket from Vienna to Budapest.' So I did."

Actually, he went by diplomatic car one spring morning in 1963 and returned to Vienna that night. Reporters swarmed over the story. Koenig said nothing. Now, smiling, with perhaps a sense of his own history, he says:

"He was living in a room by himself. He had almost no contact with the outside world except for a radio. I brought him Vatican papers. When I got in the room he turned up the radio as far as it would go and our conversationproceeded over an enormousnoise. We had, you see, to becareful."

He looks down. He almost seems embarrassed. "So I am in a way the manwith more contacts among EasternEuropean Communist countries thanany other spiritual leaders. It just sortof... happened."

He is asked about Pope John PaulII, formerly Cardinal Karol Wojtylaof Krakow. "Oh, he's a great man. There are two things about his personality. One, he is a very religiousman. For instance, he says the way ofthe Cross daily. Since many years. In away that nobody notices. And he preparesmost of his speeches in thechapel, which suggests his rich innerspiritual life.

"But there is another thing abouthim, too. He is a deep humanist. Hemay be an intellectual, but he has away of being very down-to-earth. When he was first elected, he seemedvery confused. He told the people,'Tell me if I'm not pronoucing my Italianright.'"

When he was Bishop and CardinalWojtyla -- not pope -- he used to makesure to spend a fortnight every winteron skis, Koenig says of the pontiff. "He used to tell me, 'The doctor says Ineed it.' Ha. And then every summerhe would spend three weeks on boatswith friends. Every night, he wouldsleep in a tent. He did it last summer."

Koenig has seen Pope John Paul IItwice since he was elected. "I said, 'Sohow's the pope,' and he said, 'Oh, Iitch to get out.'"

Now that he looks back on the turmoiledsummer and fall when two popes were elected almost before the cardinals could get home again, he wonders if the Holy Ghost didn't plan it all that way.

"There must have been an invisible hand, that's all I can think. In the second conclave, we had no idea a non-Italian would be elected. It was justlike always -- early mass, breakfast at 8o'clock in the great hall. Two or threecardinals would be knotted togethertalking. Then came the first ballot. You fill it out: "Elegio in summumpontificum ." That is the crucial stage. The names emerge."

Koenig entered the great hall rightahead of Cardinal Wojtyla on his fatefulday. "He had a book of Polish governmenthistory under his arm and agreat smile on his face. The smilesaid, 'Oh, it's not going to be me.'"

But it was, of course, and the worldhad its first non-Italian pontiff in overfour centuries. No, says Koenig, therewas never a chance there would havebeen a Viennese pope. He is smilingbroadly.

"Oh, I saw my name in a few Americanpapers. But we elected the rightone."