LOS ANGELES -- California, a state with a constitution that permits the governor to set aside a day for prayer, fasting and abstinence, is ready for a pope who also likes Jobish ways of penance. But Californians, who will have John Paul II for four of his coming 10 days in the United States, have other plans to express their devoutness.

Tommy Lasorda, Los Angeles Dodgers manager and a Catholic with a soft touch for nuns wanting box-seat comps, sent the Holy Father a media guide for the day the pope says mass in Dodger Stadium.

The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sees the papal visit as made in Heaven. Images of freeway gunplay, which hurt summer tourism, will be dispelled by a pope blessing the throngs on secure streets. The Holy Father will be in his armored popemobile, perhaps the only safe means of freeway travel these days.

Downtown at St. Vibiana's Cathedral, where the pope will be staying overnight, the city will bounce 471 homeless men who bed down next door at the Union Rescue Mission. For alleged security reasons, the ungainly poor are to be warehoused -- literally, at the city's Crocker Street warehouse a few out-of-sight blocks away.

The disparities in the papal welcome -- from Dodger blue to bums getting the bum's rush -- are apt vestments for a symbolic clothing of John Paul's American tour. The American church -- the nation's largest religious denomination -- is not really sure whom it belongs to and who belongs to it. Pontiffs pontificate, and this one is expected to call for loyalty to Rome, as if Christ and the Vatican are the same.

This is not John Paul's first visit to California. He came -- slipped in, really -- in 1976 as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland. Eleven years ago, Catholics weren't demonstrating against church policies on women, homosexuals and divorce. Nor were Jews collecting signatures to petition the pope to recognize Israel as a state. In 1976, California had a governor who had been in a Jesuit seminary. Last month in a public lecture, Jerry Brown recalled what it was like in the serene secure days when Catholicism had an identity of conformity: "About the time when my father {Edmund G. Brown} was elected governor, I wrote him a letter from the seminary cautioning him not to appear at the state prayer breakfast because it was basically a Protestant institution. And under the Catholic rules as I understood them, that would be joining in some kind of false worship."

Idolatry over ham and eggs appears to have gone the way of medieval usury as a deadly sin. So also has the Catholic identity. In the seminary days of Jerry Brown, you were a Catholic for what you didn't do: You didn't eat meat on Fridays, you didn't miss mass on Sundays, you didn't divorce. The Ten Commandments had footnotes with the Ten Didn'ts. Or 100 didn'ts if you really went at it.

John Paul II has the burden of being the first modern pope forced to deal with Catholics who refuse to become ex-Catholics. Those who once had reasons for parting now use those reasons for staying. Women want the right to ordination. The divorced see remarriage as no sin. Gays and lesbians want to be free of condemnation. Couples want their sex lives to be guided by personal conscience, not a Roman cardinal. Believers want access to the sacraments from their love of God, not because they toe a current Vatican line.

The pope's challenge in America is how to join with followers who care about the church too much to leave it. This calls for political, not spiritual, skills. In each of the nine cities on the papal tour, John Paul will be confronted by protest groups. This pope is known as an authoritarian. But he is not really. If he were true to his brow that furrows over American dissidence he would call out anathema and excommunicate the whole troublemaking lot. His predecessors torched people at the inquisitorial stake for less.

If past performance is a guide, John Paul can be expected to provide strong theater but weak leadership. His motorcade gestures from the popemobile will be grand, his clutching of children's heads heartwarming and his speeches pious. Television will have religion the way it likes, as spectacle. The media are comfortable with personalities, and this pope has been cooperative in turning himself into one.

Chances for mending what's broken in the American church or filling what's empty are small. John Paul eschews give and take: no press conferences, no public dialogue with a Sister Teresa Kane who asked him in 1979 for the theological reasons for women being deemed unfit for the priesthood. The loss is large. Energies spent by the pope in allowing the church to become a debating club rather than a better life-serving community are wasted on what should be side issues of sex and ordination.

The displaced homeless at St. Vibiana's tell the story: a church whose Roman leadership agrees to get its problems out of sight.