When James Hickey was 13 years old, he left his family. He left to become a priest. "I loved my mother," he says, "but I didn't miss her. She never understood that."

If leaving to become a priest at 13 was not as unusual in the 1930s as it would be today, Hickey's comment marks an emotional detachment that seems odd. wIt also marks an absolute joining of the man to the Roman Catholic Church.

"Very rarely did I have doubts about becoming a priest," he says. "I have never had a crisis of faith." Even for an archbishop -- last August he was named archbishop of Washington -- that is unusual.

He is properly addresses as "Your Excellency," and some still bow to him, to kiss his ring. He is master of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property, master of a complete school system, master of Catholic University, of priests, of nuns, of parishes, of buildings, of football teams.

But his demesne extends further. In the church sense of time, Hickey has just arrived in Washington, yet he has . . . influence. The influence has been felt -- whether they know it or not, and whether they are among the archdiocese's 400,000 Catholics or not -- by blacks in Anacostia and whites in Chevy Chase. They will feel it more in the future.

Hickey's influence extended into the last presidential administration -- he met with Carter, with Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, with others, and named as one of his two special assistants Msgr. Geno Baroni, a Carter assistant secretary of housing and urban development. He has testified on Capitol Hill and met with congressional leaders.

Now his influence extends into the Reagan administration. Undersecretary of State James Buckley has had "several conversations" with him. Buckley says, "We try to keep him informed. He's met with [Deputy Secretary] Bill Clark a number of times."

All the meetings, with Carter, with congressmen, with Reagan officials, dealt with El Salvador. They were not ceremonial. Hickey's voice is listened to in the American church and in Rome, and the stance of the Catholic Church is critical to stability in Latin America. The State Department knows it.

"Hickey," says the Rev. Robert Drinan, the former congressman, "was effective, very, very effective on the Hill on El Salvador . . . He has aroused the American Catholic Church on this issue. A man, a non-Catholic who is very sophisticated politically, said to me that he feels certain that but for the Catholic Church we'd have Marines in El Salvador right now."

Before the Reagan administration went public with its Salvador policy, Buckley and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, both Catholics, and United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and their staffs briefed Hickey and other church leaders.

Baroni says, "They invited us. We didn't ask them . . . You could tell they were very interested in making some impression on him."

James Hickey is a player on the highest level.

"The spirit of evil is a reality in the world," Hickey says. "'The Devil' is by no means a rhetorical expression. He is a fallen angel with all the power and force of an angel. I think people who allow the force of evil to work through them become evil." And they, and Satan, must be struggled against.

Hickey's struggle is personal but his arena is institutional. There is a legal concept called "corporation sole." It means the archbishop has absolute control over the assets of his diocese, and points out a dialectic all bishops face -- a juxtaposition of the corporation and the individual, intellect and emotion, freedom and submission.

Reminding a group of nuns celebrating the 25th and 50th anniversaries of their vows, Hickey says, "You did not choose God. God chose you."

His faith that he has been chosen makes him certain and strong. But it also brings up the question of free will, of surrendering the self. He says surrender is "an apt and often-used concept, but I never thought of it that way. To me, I hate to use the word 'fulfilled,' but that's what I feel. I tend to think of myself in terms of fulfilling a gift God gave me, not as surrendering."

The church is feudal. In creating order out of chaos, feudalism, and the church, made obedience a great good; the church is hierarchic, not bureaucratic. It is organic: the arm is connected to the shoulder, the shoulder to the neck, the neck to the head. Here, it is Hickey who is the head. It is Hickey who is obeyed. He is the church and the church is he. And he can operate where he is not the head.

"He's a very sophisticated man with a lot of experience in Rome," Msgr. George Higgins points out, comparing him to a Washington insider. "It's one thing to read in the paper a cabinet secretary said so and so. It's another for Clark Clifford to go in and see him."

When Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered, the Vatican responded less than vigorously, reflecting the fact that several Salvadoran bishops had opposed Romero outright and only one attended his funeral. But after a lengthy visit by Hickey, the Vatican reversed itself this March and strongly endorsed Romero's actions. Mario Paredas, director of the Northeast Catholic Hispanic Center in New York, says, "If there is no connection, indeed there is a tremendous coincidence."

Hickey is the archetypal powerful bishop. Spellman of New York, Cushing of Boston and a few others have had a major presence regionally and in some cases nationally. But they represented the old church, protector of the status quo. Hickey is the first of this ilk -- a powerful bishop -- in Washington and he represents the church of change.

That change came out of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Hickey attended as a peritus (expert), and as his bishop's proxy. Vatican II focused concerns on human dignity, on the poor, on this world. That focus has led the church to challenge the status quo more than it has in centuries.

Vatican II did not change everything. Thinking of concerns such as priestly celibacy and birth control, the Rev. Francis X. Murphy. a Washington priest who's a longtime observer of the international church, can still say of Hickey, "Make no mistake, he's a conservative." But it changed much.

Sixty years old, white-haired, a hint of fleshiness softening his strong jaw, Hickey is not a man who radiates force and will. A patrician, a gourmet cook, a man who delights in art and classical music -- it's easy to understand the assistant who describes him as "very Roman."

He laughs gently and seems at first even passive. But his eyes, from behind glasses, are alert, and one realizes that what seems passivity is instead absorption. It is as though what he absorbs, he understands, and connot despise.

Throughout his home on Rockwood Parkway are remembrances. His mother's old cookie jar -- he jokes about its survival -- sits in an etagere. He handles his bishop's ring fondly. Hickey says, "This was Bishop Woznicki's" -- Stephen Woznicki, former bishop of Saginaw, Mich., and Hickey's mentor -- "I was his secretary, lived with him for nine years. He gave me his ring."

The only time of the day Hickey is alone is during his combination walk-jog at 6:30 each morning. Much of the rest of the time he listens and absorbs. His style is that of the lamb.

That is not weakness. He soaks up attacks. Kind of like Muhammad Ali lying on the ropes while his enemy pounds away at him, Ali enduring while the enemy grows exhausted. Of course this is an oversimplification. Hickey's style resembles Ali's in another way -- he knows when to strike.

To hickey abortion is evil, but so can be economics, so is racism and so is American military involvement in El Salvador. So he fights.

He fights in small ways, attending to detail, such as laying plans to consolidate all diocesan offices outside downtown and lease out the current offices in the high-rent Connecticut Avenue area. He plans to sell his house, a plush establishment bought by the previous archbishop that boasts a maid and a handyman, and provides space for frequent guests and two priest who live with him. He will live behind the new offices.

The Rev. Ed Braxton, Hickey's theological adviser, says, "Not that it's a palace, and no criticism of Cardinal Baum -- " Hickey's predecessor -- "but in light of the poverty here, why should he live in such a house?"

Hiceky fights in larger ways too. He has had real power. In Cleveland, a city of a million Catholics, an observer says, "The Catholic bishop here, and the archbishop in Boston and in a few other places, is one of th four or five most significant people in the city in influencing how people act, even though they may hate his guts."

Court-orderd busing ignited the city. The mayor said nothing. In Congress, Cleveland Deocrats Ron Mottl and Mary Rose Oakar backed an anti-busing bill, and Oakar called the diocesan position supporting the busing "hypocritical." As Boston had before, Cleveland seethed and violense threatened.

Hickey fought to stay on top of events. He went into parish after parish and condemened racism, he arranged the appointment of a black auxiliary bishop, he refused to allow white transfers into parochial schools to avoid the court order, he led marches.

Harry Fagan, the diocesan community affairs director, says, "I want to describe him as being very savvy without being a wheeler-dealer. In business he cut the issue in a way you couldn't really oppose, a way you could back to the wall -- that no kid should get hurt.

The explosion never came. No kid got hurt.

"Baum," says a priest who knows both well, "lived in a different kind of world. Whereas Hickey wanted to [be active]. He relished it. With a controversial issue he'll fight, while Baum would hope it wouldn't come up . . . The city will be aware he's here and aware he's more interested in poor people than wealthy people."

In Cleveland Hickey inherited missions that the diocese ran in El Salvador. Often he visited there himself. One visit has burned itself into his mind.

It is March 30, 1980, the funeral of Hickey's friend Archbishop Romero, victim of a modern murder in a cathedral. Hickey is one of three men formally representing the American church in attendance. The cathedral sits at the head of a huge square.

The Rev. Al Winters, who accompanied Hickey, recalls: "The square was absolutley jammed. I heard figures from 30,000 to 100,000. I saw a tree actualy pulled over by the weight of people sitting in it . . . At the foot of the cathedral was an iron gate that was closed.

"The sun was terribly hot. When the homily started the archbishop moved into the cathedral . . . Then this explosion! Instant panic! The Salvadoran people were screaming and yelling! I heard gunshots. There was another explosion . . .

"Thousands rushed the cathedral. There were so, so many people. Many of the deaths were of asphyxiation. A young girl, 16 or 17, threw herself across me. I couldn't see the archbishop . . . Then I did. He had been pushed up against the wall. There were more gunshots. They told us to get down. People were dying around him. He was trying to minister to them as best he could."

Forty people died at the funeral.

"There is such a doctrinaire obsession and distance from reality in that violence," Hickey says. There is a sadness in his voice, and anger.

Two of the four American missionaries murdered last December had been under Hickey's jurisdiction; one had extended her time there because he specifically asked her to stay. Hickey had ridden with them in their van, the van in which the four were killed.

Administrative statements about them -- particularly Kirkpatricks's claim that they were involved in politics -- anger him.

"That's simply not true," he says wearily. "I don't think it's useful or helps anyone, our government or anyone else, to say they were political activities when they were not."

Hickey needs no State Department sources on El Salvador.

But all he does about El Salvador is personal. Though the weight of the institution behind him gives him weight, still it is he acting. More complex is what he does within the corporal institution of the church, an institution that he is remaking in his image. Some believe that Hickey has become a corporation in fact as well as in name. It saddens them. Others say that perception is wrong.

But one thing is clear. Always he knew what he wanted: to love God and oppose Satan.

The son of a dentist in Midland, Mich., Hickey grew up comfortably. He was always studious and has always been a leader. When 24-year-old Olin Murdick was considering the priesthood, he went to Hickey, then 17, for guidance.

Even then Hickey was a doer, on a fast track, and an intellectual. Murdick reaclls, "He was a book-lover, very much a student, with a great deal of zeal, religious zeal. . . He made me realize that proclaiming the gospel was still an exciting thing to do."

Hickey's first job as a priest grew out not of passion, but intellect. While in the seminary he had written an article," "The Modern Proletariat," in which he talked of migrant Mexican farm workers in Michigan. His bishop read it and told him to set up a ministry to them.

That program went well. The bishop sent the obviously bright and committed Hickey to Rome, where he earned doctorates in theology and canon law. On his return a new bishop made him his secretary and assistant chancellor of the Docese of Saginaw. Hickey was right on track, and among the fairest of the fair-haired boys.

In 1967, he bacame auxiliary bishop. Two years later he returned to Rome as rector of the North American College, a seminary for U.S. priests. Soon he became president of an association of Roman seminaries. Then, in 1974, he was named bishop of Cleveland.

Hickey knew what he wanted to do in Cleveland: make his diocese reflect Vatican II, to stand for human dignity, to be a force in the city. But he had never been a parish priest. His experience was as a thinker, an administrator. So his effort to be pastoral was systematic. He is organized: the diocese would be organized. He acts: the diocese would act. The diocese would be his reflection.

He set up secretariats for special concerns, named vicars for geographic area, laid out flow charts. No autocrat, he made sure information flowed up as well as decisions down, delegated authority and supported people in showdowns against outsiders, including the mayor -- but kept all answerable to him. He became the master bureaucrat, the ultimate administrator, and more than that, the feudal liege lord. That was most evident in the busing crisis.

"He had something to say even when nobody called him," snorts anti-busing activist Norbert Dennerl.

The Rev. Donald Jacobs, a black minister who heads the Inter-Faith Council of Cleveland, says of the busing crisis, "The archbishop played the major role."

As leadership has moved Hickey away from close pastoral ties, he has tried to listen more attentively. In Washington, every priest will have or has had a lengthy private meeting in which Hickey seeks to learn, to know both the priest and the parish and to evaluate them. One priest commented, "He's very friendly, and when you're with him it's like you're the only person in the world. But when he's through, you're out of the office before you know what's happening."

Harry Fagan worked closely with him for years but says he does not really know him: "When you talk with him you're not dealing with small talk. You're talking about the issue . . . He knows what he's talking about and if you don't, you're crazy to be there."

"He likes to be in situations where he can control what happens," says a man who had regular contact with Hickey in Cleveland. "He appears to be more open than he is. He made statements [that] he was open but when you tried to get to him he wasn't available. The secretariats kind of kept you away from him. He kept himself fairly protected."

And Jacobs, who warmly supports him, says, "He's a formal type of guy, never one to let down too much in public. I think that's helpful. There are people who take advantage of those who relax."

But Hickey doesn't relax. Nothing happens by mistake. His sister Marie declined an interview, saying "Jim doesn't like me to talk to reporters . . . Once before I said something out of turn in Cleveland and I don't want to again."

The day the pope was shot Hickey gave a press conference. Braxton sat just behind the press, listening carefully.

"That's part of my job," he explained, "to monitor, to make sure he's saying what he wants to say."

When the press asked harmless questions -- Was the shooting a conspiracy? Where was he when he heard? -- Braxton said, "I thought they would ask about El Salvador, terrorism, the church and politics."

So Braxton quickly relaxed, deciding that, "He's not going to volunteer anything for them."

Here Hickey is just beginning. He works hard, 14- and 16-hour days, for his purpose. Yet work does not drain him. It gives him strength. Rest weakens him; rest keeps him from fulfilling his vision of God's will.

First he set up his command structure, assembling a top staff, almost a spectacular one. Hickey has two special assistants. Braxton is his theologian; Hickey may be the only bishop in the country with a full-time personal theological adviser.

When in Cleveland Hickey plucked Braxton from the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School. He uses him to stretch his mind, not only with theology. When Hickey came to Washington, he named Baroni, the former HUD assistant secretary, his other special assistant. Beyond Baroni's personal abilities, his uses in this city are obvious.

A month ago Hickey named more staff. The Rev. Raymond Kemp, a '60s activist and former District school board member, will leave his Washington parish to head the parish life and ministry office. John Carr, the executive director of Carter's White House Family Conference and a one-time top Hill aide, will head social concerns. Katherine Cole, a black college professor, will run all diocesan educational programs -- a layperson in that job is unusual; she replaces a monsignor.

"He's opening the windows and letting in fresh air," says one priest.

This diocese will soon reflect Hickey totally. If that creates tensions with traditionalists who think the church should tend to Heaven and less to this world, or with progressives who want teachings on birth control or homosexuals changed, so be it. Hickey will not confront, but he will have his way.

Hickey is at the studios of WRC-TV to broadcast a charity appeal. He arrives 15 minutes before the show and jokingly introduces an assistant as "my animated alarm clock." The assistant winces. Even as a joke, to be seen as a thing, a function, is not pleasant.

Hickey's staff has handled all details. They inundate him with papers and tell him about children who will be on the program with him. Quickly he pins down a few details, makes notes, then asks: "If I ask them [the children] questions, are they prepared to answer?"

But things are not smooth and he is not happy. He looks at a script he is supposed to read live, with small children nearby, and says, "This is not the way to do it."

Never does he raise his voice, but a few moments later he is closeted with a technician and a microphone in a soundproof booth.

This is not the way to do it. That is the strongest statement he makes to his staff ever, about anything. But they get the point. He does not show anger. His reactions are professional -- asking how does this affect the situation? -- not personal. Sometimes he seems a machine.

To know this man, know his work. He is organized, softspoken, but everything -- everything -- is directed.

On Thursdays staff meetings are held. Sister M. Gerald Hartney, possessor of an M.B.A., comptroller of the archdiocese, says, "We submit our agenda on Monday with the length of time we want to talk. He puts himself last. If time runs out on the meeting, it runs out on him. I've never seen him stop anyone, but you know very well if you're getting long-winded you're taking time from him."

Things move. For years there had been talk about opening a place for homeless women. Hickey liked the idea and wanted it opened within three months. No site had been picked, no plans made for plumbing, for electricity. mIn every staff meeting Hickey asked, "What have you done about the home?" Mount Carmel House opened ahead of schedule at 471 G Place NW.

There have been other changes as well, from planning a comprehensive drug program to bringing Nobel Peace laureate Mother Teresa Bojaxhiu to Anacostia. Things move all right.

But there is a price. Father Winters says of Hickey: "You're dealing with a bishop. Like an executive. He's there and you're here. He gives you a job and you do it."

To get jobs done in Washington, Hickey has found a guide -- Baroni.

From a steel town in Pennsylvania, Baroni is an earthy man, gravelly of voice and craggy of face, wide-shouldered and heavy. Seated at his desk, behind an award given him by HUD Secretary Moon Landrieu, Baroni relaxes, yet seems to be sizing up his listener. He jokes of having had his own bureaucracy at HUD, with eight deputies and three special assistants. Now he shares a secretary with Braxton.

His office, like all the others in the archdiocesan headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue NW, is spare. The wall is bare except for one crucifix. The desk is cluttered. There is a sense of the Washington hardball-player about him, and a sense of the priest too -- of that part of the church that does not always move in a straight line. Like Hickey, he does things.

"Geno," says a former government colleague and fellow-activist, "has learned to play the Washington game and learned it quite well. Though I think he gets the reputation for being more Machiavellian than he is."

Before this appointment Baroni was already well known in the archdiocese. He has been an activist since the early 1960s, and worked with young Stokely Carmichael, among others. His appointment sent a clear message to every priest here.

The phone rings. It is someone asking how to get money out of a rich donor for a community project. Baroni laughs and says, "Just go there with a priest and a picture of the Sacred Heart and you'll get it." The caller is a member of Congress.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit says of Baroni's appointment, "That's very typical of Hickey. He would recognize the need to have someone like that close to him."

Baroni arranged the meeting of Carter, Hickey and Bishop Thomas Kelly, the secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference, "to establish a precedent," Baroni says, of access to the president. He coordianted Hickey's congressional testimony, and makes the kind of connections here that Hickey makes for himself in Rome.

Not that Hickey needs Baroni or anyone else to get things done. If Baroni were not available, Hickey would find a way.

Yet at all that -- the institution, the maneuvering -- is dross. Hickey says, "You can have all the great dinocesan programs you want but without the parishes you have nothing."

There are two reasons for that. The parishes make up most of the body of the church, and more elemental than that, the message of the church is spread through the parishes. He says, "The most important thing to say is that God loves you. He loves you, individually, as a person. He loves you concretely, through the sacraments, not just through an emotional moment."

God loves you, Hickey says. Not just emotionally but concretely through the sacraments. It is not just love but the firmness of ritual. Hickey represents both.

An illustration: Sunday mass. The stained-glass sparkles in the sun. A priest looks out from his pulpit on a sea of faces that look up at him, wait for him, seek guidance from him. What does the priest feel then? Is it responsibility? Ego? Power? The Rev. Joaquin Bazan, the pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church in Mount Pleasant, laughs at the suggestion, then says, "I feel love. Not power, love."

Hickey says, "I see people who have come to hear the Lord's word. I see people there to share ideas. It's an important moment of communication, a grace-filled moment important for them and for me."

It is a statement by a man trying to fit the whole church into a sentence, an impossible feat. Hickey wants to be pastoral but he is no simple pastor.

Hickey cannot easily be defined. Views of him differ. Only one thing is beyond disagreement: his faith is everything. He does not doubt.

From the time he left his family at 13, and didn't miss them, he has fulfilled himself in the church. He has no memories of high school cheerleaders and football games, of dating. Since he was 13, everything he has touched has been associated with the church. His isolation is more complete by far than that of the parish priest. Everything Hickey thinks or does is subsumed by his vision of the church and of God.

But God is more than enough for a man; He is too much. What about man?

Hickey is often seen as distant -- friendly, yes, but protected by layers of administration and a cool intellect.

Gumbleton says, "Hickey would reason that someting was the right thing to do and therefore let's do it, but he wouldn't get personally involved in an emotional sense."

"He is more a thinker -- not a scholar but a thinker -- than most American bishops," a priest close to him observes. And to think is to be alone. A certain isolation is required, a distance.

"Perhaps it's one of his faults, that he does come across as distant," says Winters, who has traveled often with Hickey.

Hickey was not always that way. The Rev. Paul Baca, an Arizona priest, remembers that first project for migrant workers. As a seminary student he came from Denver to help Hickey, who spoke little Spanish then.

Baca says, "There was a lot of hostility then, to us and to the workers. This was 1946, '47. I was one place and the parish priest barely tolerated me. He [Hickey] just smoothed that over like you wouldn't believe. He made the priest feel that he was doing his part for working with us a week. Then he apologized to me and got me out, to a place where I could actually do something."

That sounds typical of the "savvy" Hickey. But Baca also remembers, "He lent us his car when our jalopy went bust and he went afoot himself looking for rides. He was a bridge too, to us and everyone. It was like a family."

That does not sound like a man who calls an assistant an "animated alarm clock." The years have pulled Hickey away from that family.

It is ironic therefore that his connection with the poor, a connection which began as an intellectual exercise -- the article he wrote as a seminarian -- pulls him back, grounds him to the earth. As Hickey has risen, it has been his anchor.

Winters goes on to say, "I don't find him [distant]. With the Cleveland priests and nuns in Salvador he would relax. After we traveled I got to know him, I hate to use the phrase 'as a human being,' but I guess that's it."

"The tragedy of El Salvador," says Gumbleton, "brought out in Hickey a depth of feeling that maybe he didn't know he had."

In Hickey's home the walls of his private chapel are bare except for a crucifix, two tapestries and five newspaper clippings. All are from El Salvador. The clippings are in Spanish and include photos of an archbishop, two American missionaries and two altar boys. All five were murdered, Romero and the missionaries by rightists, the altar boys by leftists. Hickey is a man who has been close to violent death.

"It moved him," says Winters. "He sensed everything, he sensed all the more the pain, the poverty . . . It moved him. Other things move him too. I know."

In Hickey's heart there is an ache. It is painful, but it is an ache he needs.

It is Wednesday, May 13. The pope has just been shot. The archbishop is sitting in the bishop's chair in St. Matthew's Cathedral as a special mass is celebrated. His head is down, he looks severe and worn and his body seems to sag. All that is unlike him. Then his body and face stiffens and he is firm, if grim. Is he thinking about the pope, whom he knows and who he says would prefer death to hiding behind a security wall? his good friend, Archbishop Romero, assassinated in his cathedral? the missionaries murdered in El Salvador?

And what do the others at this mass think, those who kneel below the pulpit? Others who include Haig, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, National Security Council director Richard Allen. What is in all their hearts?

Earlier Hickey had been talking about Romero. "We were walking in the funeral procession," Hickey recalls. "I don't know where the music was coming from, but someone was playing the "Unfinished Symphony.' I remember thinking how everything was unfinished. The unfinished symphony. He was shot before the mass finished. The funeral was unfinished. And of course his work was unfinished."

Earlier too he had talked of the shootings of Reagan and the pope as "just two examples of violence that bedevil our work."

He was angry when he said that. Angry. At the devil. At evil. At the lack of peace. And he was firm.