WITH PRESIDENTIAL candidates, governors and archbishops citing chapter and verse to back their reading of the roles of religion and politics, a clearer understanding of the issue might come from considering the life of Msgr. Geno Baroni. He died of cancer in late August at 53 after nearly 25 years in Washington that included ministries from an inner-city black parish to government service.

From 1977 to 1981, Baroni, following Senate confirmation, served in the Carter administration as assistant secretary of HUD for neighborhood development. It was the highest federal position ever held by an active clergyman. The Reagan administration, which came into office promoting itself as the true champion of neighborhoods and families, abolished the office first thing.

Whether dealing with the bureaucracies of the church or the government, Baroni saw them as the same: With a touch of gentle ingenuity, you can get around them. Marshal the facts, make some phone calls, persuade the powerful that it's to their benefit to respond positively, twist an arm or rub an elbow. That, Baroni often said cheerfully, is power politics whether you are toiling for God or Caesar. City hall and the chancery understand the same language: Lead the people or risk irrelevance.

Baroni himself had learned the dialect well. He became the first Catholic priest to get the permission of his bishop to march in the 1965 Selma, Ala., civil rights demonstration. Why shouldn't I be there, he reasoned. What was happening in the South he had seen in his black parish in Washington, though the racism took different forms. In Alabama, dogs and hoses were used to keep out the blacks. In northern cities, Baroni said, banks and city halls used redlining -- the arbitrary line around a poor neighborhood that marked it unsafe for investment. The civil rights laws that he worked for in the 1960s were part of the struggle that led to the passage of the 1975 antiredlining law, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

During his four years at HUD, Baroni was the first federal housing official ever to show up at neighborhood meetings in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Gary, Ind., and Baltimore and come to them as an old friend, not a new stranger. He had been there before as founder and president of the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs.

In the meeting halls of such places as the Michigan Avenue Community Organization in Detroit, Baroni persuaded ethnics, blacks, Hispanics and displaced Appalachians to forget their differences and form coalitions. "Neighborhoods," he said, "are the key to the problems in the city." Then he would add, "Mutual self-help -- it's so simple but we are always having to learn it over."

Some of those who heard Baroni's message and realized its political potential were several ethnic women who decided to use their community activism as a base for elective politics. They ran for Congress and won. These included Reps. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Geraldine Ferraro, now running for the vice presidency. Baroni, always a pace or two ahead, urged his allies not to become "liberal basket cases," a phrase he used to describe '60s activists who knew how to begin programs but not keep them running 10 or 20 years later.

Since 1966, I had interviewed Baroni several times. When asked a question, he preferred to tell a story or build a little anecdotal irrigation ditch, and water the truth that way. For his thoughts on ethnic identity, he told funny stories about "my kind of people, PIGS: Poles, Italians, Greeks, Slovaks." When asked to explain his theological leanings, he said he believed in the power of God's grace but insisted that people could better benefit from it if they had jobs, homes and some extra money for an occasional night out at the bowling alley or neighborhood restaurant, preferably Italian.

Arthur Jones of the National Catholic Reporter recalls how Baroni's immigrant mother, in her eighties, gamely tried to adapt to changes in the "new" church: "Each year the young bearded priest came by. One year he told her she had to stop eating lettuce. As Baroni recalled it, she did, but wasn't exactly certain why, except it had to do with justice. The next year it was grapes, and she went along with that too. The third year he told her we were all responsible for the problems of the Third World. At that point, Mrs. Baroni decided it was time to contact Geno. 'Geno,' she said, 'I think because of the changes there's no purgatory anymore. Just heaven and hell. What's this Third World?' "

In the past few months, I visited Baroni a half-dozen times in the hospital. He shared with me, and with others who knew he was dying and went to his bedside, a calmness about death that edified even the most seasoned nurses on the cancer ward. For as long as possible, he kept his mind and heart focused on daily life: news stories, the presidential race, or perhaps the problems that visitors were having with their own ailments, whether physical or spiritual. A visit to him was like a healing service.

His personal advice to visitors was much like his political advice: Form coalitions. Join the best parts of yourself: ideals with energy. It worked for me, he said. Facing cancer, he lost the battle but he retained to the end his inner fight.