On the Sunday after Easter, a bearded man in a dark suit walked into Holy Trinity Church for the 9:15 Mass, slipped into a pew near the front of the assembly and stood with upturned hands, as though receiving a gift -- or offering one. His eyes were closed behind thick glasses, and his expression was prayerful and vaguely pained.

For perhaps 10 minutes, he was the only person standing in the Georgetown church, aside from the growing number clustered in the rear who had arrived after every seat was filled. Soon, however, the strains of the opening hymn filled the sanctuary, and the congregation rose as the priest and his party processed to the altar.

Like everyone else in the throng, the bearded man contemplated his sins, prayed for forgiveness and sang God's glory. But when the others sat for the Scripture readings, Ray McGovern remained upright in their midst, provoking wariness and speculation.

One parishioner wondered if her friend had hemorrhoids. Another assumed he had wrenched his back. A man singing in the choir thought the stander might be disturbed, and made plans to subdue him if he began to babble or gesticulate.

McGovern, however, was the picture of composure. He stood silently through the homily and remained on his feet while the others knelt for the Eucharistic prayer and the elevation of the host and chalice. He took Communion, which dispelled some people's fears that he was in a trance, but afterward he remained standing while others knelt in private thanksgiving.

By the time Mass ended, the hiss of whispered questions filled the church. "Go in peace," the priest told them, though he must have realized that peace was unlikely.

The final note of the concluding hymn had barely faded when a knot of parishioners surrounded McGovern. Was he all right? What was going on?

McGovern was seldom inclined to be succinct, and he gave his interrogators the full benefit of his thinking.

A few weeks earlier, in the late winter of 1992, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had released the third draft of its pastoral letter on the role of women in the American Church. It was a more conservative document than its predecessors and no longer suggested that the Church discuss ordaining women as deacons. On returning from Rome, where he had been summoned for consultations, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, N.Y., told reporters that Pope John Paul II was irrevocably opposed to such a move and had decided that further conversation would breed only dissent and disillusionment.

McGovern heard "the voice of the oppressor" in these words. It was a voice he had heard repeatedly in his previous line of work, monitoring the Soviet bloc for the Central Intelligence Agency. And though the pope had played an essential role in the crusade against communism, McGovern viewed him as a repressive force within the Church.

Several Sundays earlier, McGovern's daughter Christin, the youngest of his five children, had come home angry from Sunday school. The sophomores had been studying the sacraments, and when the teacher began to explain Holy Orders, the sacrament of priestly ordination, Christin interrupted. If she couldn't receive the sacrament, she said, she didn't want to hear about it. A few of the other girls supported her, and they brought the class to a halt.

Ray had taught Sunday school himself for several years and had never heard of an incident like this one. But the more he reflected on it, the more he came to admire what his daughter had done. He and his wife, Rita, had raised Christin and her two sisters to believe that God had created them the equal of any man. And in all that time, he suddenly felt, the Catholic Church had been working against them.

"I felt I should not sit still for this," McGovern told people that Sunday morning. "So I stood up."

Coming from him, the gesture was not easy to dismiss. While he was teaching Sunday school, McGovern had earned a certificate in theology by attending night school at Georgetown University. He had been active for almost two decades in Cursillo, a lay persons' prayer movement, and had served as president of Bread for the City, a charity that provided food and medical care to impoverished residents of the District.

News of McGovern's protest spread quickly through the crowd that gathered after Mass in the basement of the parish's upper school for coffee, doughnuts and conversation. Reaction was vigorously mixed. The volunteers who helped plan the 9:15 liturgy were livid, but the women of the parish staff were pleased. There was amusement among those who took a tolerant view of Holy Trinity's penchant for controversy, and indignation among those who did not.

Underlying all these reactions, however, was a communal sense of foreboding, for the people of Holy Trinity understood that their parish was already vulnerable to the resurgent conservatism that John Paul had breathed into the Church. And in October 1992, Cardinal James Hickey and his staff would begin, with the Jesuits of the Maryland province, a search for Holy Trinity's next pastor.

Many parishioners understood immediately that Ray McGovern's protest, if it continued, might be used as evidence that the Jesuits were overly permissive in the face of ecclesiastical dissent. There was even speculation that if a suitable Jesuit were not found, the cardinal might expel the Society of Jesus from a church it had administered for more than two centuries.

THE ROMAN CATHOLIC Church in the United States is a disputatious communion. Though unified by the faithful's belief in the redemptive passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in his "real presence" in the sacraments, it is riven by the same issues -- abortion, homosexuality, sex education and the role and rights of women -- that have set left against right in this country's culture wars. As a whole, moreover, the American Church lives in some tension with Rome.

Polls illustrating the gulf between the teachings of John Paul and the beliefs of his American flock have appeared with a frequency sufficient to make them a journalistic cliche. In a Gallup survey released the same year that Ray McGovern began his protest, nearly 90 percent of the Catholic respondents said they believed couples could morally disregard the Church's ban on artificial birth control; 70 percent said priests should be allowed to marry; 68 percent believed that premarital sex could be morally acceptable in some circumstances; and two-thirds supported ordaining women to the priesthood.

And yet the Catholic Church offers its local communities no model for resolving conflicts among the faithful. It does not engage, in any official way, with members who accept the fundamental tenets of the faith but cannot assent to the totality of Church teaching. There is no institutional mechanism, short of a papally convened synod or worldwide council, for dealing with the sort of debate and dissent now widespread in the American Church.

Such dissent is probably even more widespread within Holy Trinity, which is among the more liberal parishes in the country.

Through either grace or happenstance, the architecture of the 140-year-old building one block from the gates of Georgetown University embodies the spirit of the contemporary parish. The church is neither Gothic, like the parishes of so many Catholic neighborhoods, nor modernist, like the brick piles that jut from sprawling parking lots in the suburbs. Rather, it is neoclassical, and resembles a lyceum more than a church. It was constructed as the young American republic was rediscovering the political and artistic virtues of ancient Greece -- particularly the primacy of reasoned discourse and the right of each individual to bring his or her views before the community.

Few parishes take lay participation in the liturgy so seriously. Each Mass is prepared by volunteer planning teams coordinated by the parish's Worship Committee. Holy Trinity employs a full-time director of liturgy, a full-time director of music, several part-time choir directors and a full-time liturgical assistant. All are lay people. Lay people design and oversee the decoration of the sanctuary. They read from Scripture and give one another Communion. On rare occasions, they preach.

This inclusive approach has helped make Holy Trinity the most popular parish in the Archdiocese of Washington. In the 30 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, the parish has grown fivefold, though the population in its Georgetown neighborhood has increased barely at all. More than 4,400 households are currently on its rolls. Nearly 40 percent come from the neighboring Diocese of Arlington, and some parishioners live as far as 45 miles away.

To many of the laity who crowd its pews each Sunday, and to a handful of the diocesan priests who watch from an envious distance, Holy Trinity is the model of what a contemporary parish should be: liturgically vibrant, theologically sophisticated, spiritually enriching and socially aware, a place where Catholics gather to encounter their God in the pages of Scripture, in the sacrament of the Eucharist and in their fellowship with one another.

But for officials of the Archdiocese of Washington, Holy Trinity is a problem. In their eyes the parish's popularity has come at too great a price. For at the core of its success lies a willingness to trust the spiritual integrity and moral judgment of its parishioners. And this, the archdiocese believes, is sometimes done at the expense of Catholic truth.

Most Holy Trinity parishioners believe that with the exception of certain core teachings, doctrine can be "developed" -- which is to say, altered -- to reflect new insights and understandings. Such an outlook dictates that questioning and challenging be respected as acts of faith, and that the hand of authority rest lightly on the pilgrims.

That may be why Holy Trinity is often the place where alienated Catholics take their first steps back into the Church, and why it is also the parish of last resort for those who find Catholic teaching on sex roles and sexual ethics to be oppressive. It was certainly the reason the cardinal and his advisers were becoming increasingly concerned about the direction of the parish.

For eight years, beginning in 1987, I was a parishioner at Holy Trinity, but aside from asking a question at an open forum, making several retreats and participating in an offertory procession, my role in the events recounted here was strictly journalistic. When I set out to write about the issues that set Catholics in the United States against the Vatican, and the ways in which they tried to reconcile their own moral perceptions with the teachings of their Church, I intended to write about a different parish. But the events that began unfolding in Georgetown in the spring of 1992 captured in a unique way the struggle for control of the American Church.

WHEN WORD OF Ray McGovern's protest reached the rectory that morning, the Rev. Jim Maier had a pretty good idea of what would happen. A handful of his parishioners would demand that he, as Holy Trinity's pastor, deliver Ray an ultimatum: Sit down or get out. Ray, in all likelihood, would refuse. If matters dragged on, the archdiocese would become involved, and, in the end, he would be expected to prevail upon Ray to leave the parish, or, perhaps, have him carried from the church.

Carried from the church! Now that would send parish children a wonderful example of how conflict was handled within the family of the faith.

The situation was all the more difficult for Maier, because exercising authority was neither an interest nor a strength of his. He had come to Holy Trinity after seven years as master of novices at the Jesuit formation house in Wernersville, Pa. In that role he had guided scores of young Jesuits through a two-year period of prayer, counseling and instruction, and helped them determine whether they had a priestly vocation. Though he enjoyed being a pastor, he missed the long, intimate conversations he shared with his novices as they tried to discover where God was leading them. This spiritual "discernment" was central to the Jesuit tradition, and Maier believed in it so strongly that he felt it could be used to mediate conflicts within the Church.

His executive style -- he sometimes called it "servant leadership" -- did not prevent him from becoming an immensely popular pastor over the previous five years. He was beloved for his openness to ideas, his generosity with his time and what one parishioner called his willingness to "struggle in public."

Among Holy Trinity's parishioners, disagreement with the Vatican's teaching on the role of women in the Church was particularly strong, and, as pastor, Maier thought it was important to "invite women to ministry." He had allowed women to assist the priest at the altar at Mass. He had instituted a variety of "non-Eucharistic liturgies" at which women, under existing Church rubrics, were allowed to "offer reflections" (only the ordained may give a homily). He had included female spiritual directors on the parish retreat team, hired women to the pastoral staff and appointed them to lead the parish council and its various committees.

If there was something more he could have done to advance the status of women in the Church, he did not know what it was. And that meant he had nothing to offer Ray McGovern by way of a compromise, no means of inducing him to sit down before the archdiocese got wind of his protest.

With his bottomless faith in discernment, Maier called a meeting for the following Saturday at which McGovern, the parish staff and the liturgy planning team could talk matters through. At that meeting, there was plenty of talk, but little resolution.

McGovern elaborated on what he'd said the previous Sunday. Many of the women present gave personal testimony to their difficulties with the Church -- the contempt they encountered in theology schools, the mistrust and condescension manifest in the archdiocese's dealings with them, and the intellectual poverty and pastoral callousness of the Vatican's teachings on women. The Church taught that women could not be admitted to the ministerial priesthood because, as women, they did not properly "image Christ." But many theologians, and most American Catholics, believed that this teaching was erroneous. What was essential about Jesus was his humanity, not his masculinity, and in this regard, both men and women reflected the divine image.

Present circumstances, however, raised a more immediate issue: One woman spoke not only for herself when she said that the liturgy should never be politicized -- that it had to remain the forum in which Catholics transcended their differences, or else the promise of being one in Christ was lost.

As Maier watched his parishioners file from the room, he was uncertain where things stood.

The following morning, he found out: Worshipers at the 9:15 Mass once again found Ray McGovern upright in their midst. Standing elsewhere around the church were seven others. They accounted for barely 1 percent of the congregation, but their presence utterly altered the nature of the Mass.

On that Sunday, amid the liturgical rejoicing of Eastertide, parishioners at Holy Trinity sensed that they might be witnessing the birth of a movement. The Standing, as it came to be known, would graduate from a curiosity to a crisis, and many would feel compelled to choose sides.

AS THE STANDING continued in the ensuing weeks, Maier pondered his unsatisfying options.

Some members of the 9:15 liturgy team wanted him to denounce the standers from the pulpit, but he thought that would only alienate those who supported women's ordination but were ambivalent about the protest. McGovern's allies wanted him to authorize a liturgical lamentation of sexism in the Church, but Maier did not know whether to laugh or wince when he imagined how the archdiocese would receive news of such a ceremony.

Meanwhile, the Standing grew: By the fifth Sunday after Easter, the standers numbered 10.

Maier heard through the clerical grapevine that Cardinal Hickey was monitoring the situation and expected him to make short work of it. He tried writing to several of the protesters, telling them that their behavior was inappropriate at the Mass, but his letters were not immediately heeded.

Some members of the parish convened what would become known as the Working Groups on Sexism, to provide a friendly forum for discussing sexism and the Standing. But at an early meeting, the debate between the Standing's opponents and supporters escalated, each side expounding on its own righteousness, until by the end an ex-Marine who had been a member of the 9:15 community for 20 years was wagging his finger in the face of a 15-year-old girl, who acidly asked him to remove it. Opponents soon abandoned attempts at dialogue, and the Working Groups comprised activists only.

By mid-June, Maier had some hope that his low-key efforts were working: The standers, who had numbered as many as 12, were now only five strong. And since one of them was in the choir, which stood most of the time anyway, his protest was not particularly noticeable.

Still, they continued to stand.

The Working Groups on Sexism continued to meet through the summer and into the fall. The members agreed that the groups needed to broaden their base, and so they decided to create a symbol that would allow parishioners to demonstrate support for women's ordination without having to stand during the Mass. After much discussion, they unveiled their new symbol on the last Sunday of October.

Shortly after arriving for the 9:15 liturgy, McGovern and eight or nine others donned light blue stoles, much like the green stoles worn by the priests who presided at the liturgy that day. Perhaps a dozen additional parishioners wore light-blue ribbons pinned to their jackets, as a more discreet showing of solidarity with the protesters.

Like the rest of the parish, Maier was caught off-guard. In the Catholic faith only priests and deacons wear stoles, and he was uneasy about the implications of his parishioners' "ordaining" themselves. But he had no trouble with the ribbons. If these caught on, perhaps the protesters would decide that standing was unnecessary.

Opponents of the Standing were outraged. They found "self-stolling" an act of appalling arrogance. The protesters were denigrating the primary symbol of the ordained ministry, they contended, and thumbing their noses at the Church.

That fall, less temperate opponents of the Standing began talking of taking matters into their own hands. One Sunday Maier heard rumors that an angry group of men were gathering to carry Ray McGovern from the church. On another someone told him that an irate parishioner had threatened to punch McGovern in the nose.

No confrontation ever materialized, but as the Standing dragged on through October, Maier was left with only 10 months before his tenure as pastor expired. And in that highly charged atmosphere, the archdiocese began its search for the next pastor of Holy Trinity Church.

Although the parish had always been in Jesuit hands, nothing in the structure or law of the Church guaranteed that it would remain so. Any Catholic parish awaiting a new pastor is at the mercy of the local cardinal or bishop, just as a diocese awaiting a new bishop is at the mercy of Rome. For 200 years, the Jesuits had provided candidates for Holy Trinity, but it was the cardinal who made the choice.

And to help Cardinal Hickey make his choice, a delegation from his office would be evaluating the parish.

BY MID-NOVEMBER, Maier had decided that Holy Trinity would discern its way out of the trouble.

First there would be a series of lectures -- on the nature of the priesthood, the nature of the liturgy and the issue of women's ordination. This series would be followed by a "town meeting," or open forum, at which parishioners could discuss their feelings about sexism and the Standing. By spring, he hoped, the standers and their opponents -- freshly educated and steeped in parish sentiment -- would be meeting to forge a compromise.

Maier waited until after Christmas to present his plan to his parishioners during a meeting in the lower-school cafeteria that drew perhaps a hundred people. As he explained how techniques developed by St. Ignatius, such as scriptural contemplation, could be used to resolve conflict, he searched the faces before him. Usually his parishioners listened to his lectures with a slight smile, an engaged expression. They let their eyes meet his. But that morning people were coughing, shifting in their seats and studying their hands.

Where had he lost them? Did they doubt that spiritual methods could be effective in addressing political problems? Were they reluctant to open themselves, as the process required, to people they disliked and disagreed with? Or did they simply doubt his willingness to drive two strong-willed factions toward a resolution?

He asked if there were questions, and there was a moment of uneasy silence before Ray McGovern raised his hand. When Maier acknowledged him, a barely audible groan rippled through the room. Since the onset of the Standing nine months before, McGovern had become the screen onto which parishioners projected their feelings about the Church and about one another. And though there were plenty of strong opinions, much of the parish still seemed profoundly ambivalent about the protest.

St. Ignatius was a spiritual giant, McGovern told the crowd, but the founder of the Jesuits was not the man to help them create a less authoritarian Church. McGovern had spent a few hours that week poring over the saint's writings, and he had been troubled by what Ignatius had to say about obedience. In one instance, the saint had declared that Catholics should be prepared to call black white if the Church determined it was so.

Subservient obedience is what has gotten us into the mess, McGovern said. It is not what will get us out.

Maier drew a deep breath. He respected McGovern, but this was a low blow. Ignatius was a man of his time, the pastor said. There was no escaping that. He said and wrote many things that today would strike us as peculiar. But his deeper insights, spiritual and psychological, were still vital. They were still leading people to God and they could still help the parish come to an agreement over the Standing.

Maier mentioned the lecture series, and the forum that would follow. He alluded to the difficult work of meeting in small groups, praying together and charting an agenda to resolve the issue. But listening to his words, he realized how hollow they sounded.

People left the meeting that morning trailing their doubts behind them like children dragging exhausted helium balloons.

They don't understand what's at stake, Maier thought. He was not thinking solely of the future of his parish. To his mind, Catholics who yearned for a less authoritarian Church did not sufficiently appreciate the need for some sort of authority to keep the Church from atomizing. He was trying to show them a course that cut between the authoritarian tradition they were heirs to as Catholics and the interest-group politics they were heirs to as Americans. But what he had not resolved was where power resided when agreement could not be reached.

Nevertheless, he forged ahead with his plan.

Starting in March 1993, members of the 9:15 community gathered on three Sunday mornings in the upper-school auditorium. On the first two of those mornings they heard scholarly presentations, one opposing the ordination of women and the other arguing that the question should remain open. Because a blizzard played havoc with Maier's discernment schedule, the forum was delayed until Palm Sunday.

Even with the onset of Holy Week, feelings ran high. McGovern spoke; others spoke in his defense; still others spoke in defense of the liturgy. "I am a dues-paying member of the Women's Ordination Conference," said the Rev. Larry Madden, a part-time associate pastor at Holy Trinity, "but I'm just about ready to stop preaching at the 9:15. It is hard to give a sermon, because there is already somebody giving one."

It was the first public criticism of the Standing uttered by a priest at Holy Trinity. But if it boosted the morale of McGovern's opponents in the auditorium, their renewed attack only made his defenders more spirited.

That spring, as he monitored the deteriorating relationship between the two sides, Maier realized that the struggle over the Standing might outlive his pastorate.

WHILE THE 9:15 community was arguing its way to nowhere, the Jesuits at the provincial office in Baltimore were awakening to the seriousness of Holy Trinity's plight.

In March, the cardinal's pastoral search committee delivered its assessment of the parish, and it was scathing: The investigators charged Maier and the other priests at Holy Trinity with failing to proclaim and uphold Church teaching on the role of women in the Church and other matters. They upbraided the Sunday school program for lacking focus and failing to teach Catholic dogma and tradition. And they expressed their criticisms in an unusually aggressive tone.

The Rev. Ed Glynn, the head of the Jesuits' Maryland province, understood that if the report on Holy Trinity was not challenged, it might easily serve as grounds for removing the Jesuits from the parish.

As news about the report began to circulate at Holy Trinity, the pressure increased on McGovern to abandon his protest. A conciliatory gesture, some argued, would appease the archdiocese, and Holy Trinity would live to fight another day.

McGovern was having none of it. "What does it say about the institutional Church if you have to live in fear?" he asked.

Quickly, Glynn planned his response to the report. He would give a detailed rebuttal in his conversations with the archdiocese -- which he did not find difficult, given that he believed most of the criticisms were unfounded. He would also recommend not one, but three solid pastoral candidates, of whom the cardinal could take his pick. Glynn would do everything he could to accommodate him, short of radically altering the ethos of Holy Trinity.

Throughout that spring, Glynn reviewed the files of the men in his province. He needed someone strong-willed enough to convince Hickey that the Jesuits had taken his concerns seriously, yet progressive enough to preserve the pastoral tone of the parish.

The person he settled on was Larry Madden, the priest who had confronted McGovern at the forum. He had been a part-time associate pastor at Holy Trinity for almost 15 years, and he ran a small liturgical think tank headquartered in the parish's upper school. He had neither Maier's qualms about exercising pastoral prerogatives nor his patience with those who claimed the prophet's mantle.

But to hedge his bet, Glynn added to his list the names of the Rev. Joe Sobierajski, the most theologically conservative of the priests at Holy Trinity, and the Rev. Dan Gatti, director of pastoral care at the Georgetown University Medical Center. In mid-May he forwarded his list to the archdiocese, with Madden's name at the top.

And a few weeks later -- Trinity Sunday on the liturgical calendar -- the cardinal rejected them all. He rejected them without interviewing them, without studying their curricula vitae and, in Madden's case, without reviewing his published writings. He rejected them without a word of explanation.

Jim Maier took it as a personal humiliation -- a commentary more on his stewardship than on the three candidates. Glynn did not take the cardinal's rejection so personally, but he was livid nonetheless. In a fit of temper, he told two Holy Trinity stalwarts, "If he wants the parish that badly, he can have it."

Glynn was in his office a few days later when the cardinal called to say that he was concerned about the impasse at Holy Trinity. He wanted to suggest a few names.

Glynn didn't know whether to be delighted or apprehensive, but after the cardinal listed his candidates, he was suddenly hopeful. All three of them were Jesuits. All were intelligent men with nuanced views.

The trouble was that two of them were committed to long-term appointments in other dioceses, and the third, Paul Cioffi, a priest who lived at Georgetown University, did not want the job.

At a meeting in mid-June, Hickey tried to twist his arm, but only a little -- Cioffi had recently founded an institute that would address the declining numbers and morale of American priests, which were among the cardinal's principal concerns.

As Hickey let him off the hook, he asked if Cioffi would search the Maryland province for a suitable candidate. Cioffi said of course he would. What he did not say is that he already knew the best man for the job: It was Larry Madden.

Cioffi and Glynn had already voiced this opinion to each other before Cioffi's meeting with Hickey; soon, they persuaded the cardinal to take give Madden a chance.

Hickey requested copies of Madden's curriculum vitae and several of his publications. Finding nothing that alarmed him, he asked his secretary to make an appointment with Madden for the morning of June 23.

No sooner had Madden seated himself than the cardinal asked whether he had been angry about having his initial nomination rejected so abruptly.

"Yes," he said. "I was."

Hickey did not respond directly to this admission, but it seemed to clear the air between them. Each man relaxed, if only slightly, and the interview proceeded in a more friendly fashion. The cardinal asked his questions -- about Madden's acceptance of Church teachings, about his upholding the same in his preaching -- with a touch of amused curiosity. Madden responded as though eager to demonstrate their substantial agreement.

And then the cardinal asked Madden for his views on the Standing.

At last, Madden thought, a softball question. Protest had no place in the Mass, he replied. He would do everything he could to stop it.

Early that evening, the call came in to the rectory at Holy Trinity. Hickey offered Madden the pastorate, and Madden accepted.

The long uncertainty was over. Holy Trinity would remain in Jesuit hands.

The following morning staff members filed into Madden's office and congratulated him with high-fives. Maier, who would nominally remain pastor until his departure in August, felt his burden lift. Parish phone lines burned with the news.

Ray McGovern was among the few people not gladdened by the choice. He was relieved that his protest had not caused the cataclysm that other parishioners had predicted. But he feared what Larry Madden might do to end the Standing.

IN THE WEEK AFTER his appointment, Madden dropped in on a meeting of the Working Groups on Sexism. Though the 15 or so people who had gathered in the lower-school cafeteria that evening had never viewed him as a friend of their cause, they received him warmly.

After the opening prayer, he segued smoothly into his sales pitch: He wanted them to know that he shared their desire to improve the status of women in the Catholic Church. He supported the concept of a female priesthood, and he recognized that sexism was a sin of which the Church was frequently guilty.

Where matters became complicated, he continued, was in working to eradicate that sin. Should the future of the entire parish be risked on a quixotic gesture like the Standing? Or should Holy Trinity make the argument for women's equality in a more meaningful way -- by serving as a model of how the Church benefits from feminine energy, talent and leadership? They should make no mistake that this was the choice before them, he said.

He paused to take a quick reading of the room. Though the group was largely impassive, he sensed that it accepted his assessment of the situation. Now came the hard part.

I have come with a compromise, he told them. If those of you who are protesting will sit down from the beginning of the readings until the end of Communion, I will allow you to remain standing during the rest of the Mass. This arrangement might not satisfy liturgical purists, but it will satisfy me. And in all likelihood, it will lay the controversy over the Standing to rest.

Heads nodded as Madden outlined his plan. His compromise seemed on the verge of carrying the night.

But in the Standing, as in the Vatican, only one man's opinion truly counted, and that man was unimpressed.

Ray McGovern saw no value in Madden's plan. He was disturbed, he said, by his colleagues' rush to embrace it. Couldn't they see that aside from the few moments following the Communion, the protesters would be standing only when others were standing? Their protest would become all but unnoticeable. And for what? Holy Trinity was not becoming more hospitable to women. It was frozen, as the rest of the Church was frozen, by the self-elevating dicta of the Roman hierarchy. Until those dicta were challenged and changed, the "progress" people spoke of was so much embroidery.

When he finished speaking, an uneasy silence descended upon the room. It was as though the other participants in the meeting had reached an immediate and unspoken consensus: McGovern had gone too far. He had not simply defended his position, he had challenged the integrity and commitment of those who disagreed with him.

For Margaret Costello, this was too much to bear. She had been an active member of Holy Trinity for more than a decade -- a decade during which her commitment to both the parish and the Church had deepened. She was at that moment pursuing a master of divinity degree, the same degree traditionally taken by candidates for the priesthood, and serving as interim director of liturgy at Holy Trinity. And though she had no desire to push for her own entry into the priesthood, she had supported the goals of the Standing to the extent that her job would allow.

Over the course of the protest, however, she had become increasingly irritated by McGovern's attitude. Although he purported to be striking a blow against patriarchy, he was now, to her mind, engaging in fairly typical male behavior, playing the knight errant. It was all just a bit too self-aggrandizing.

Worse, he had arrogated to himself the right to make decisions that might determine the future of the entire community, and in so doing he had destroyed the respect and trust that had allowed parishioners of differing viewpoints to reason together toward common ends.

Perhaps no one felt this more keenly than she. Parishioners who objected to inclusive language, female preachers, female altar servers, contemporary liturgical music or the use of a variety of new Church-approved prayers vented their wrath upon her. And they vented it in language they might not have directed at someone wearing a Roman collar. After nine months as interim director of liturgy, Costello had become accustomed, if not inured, to the whispering campaign against her. Much of the time, she still loved her job. She was thrilled when a lay person delivered an excellent reflection. She drew quiet satisfaction from hearing prayers she had rendered in inclusive language read from the altar. She was energized by the sheer number of women, more than 200, who served in some kind of ministerial position at Holy Trinity.

But none of these advances had been accomplished without struggle. How dare Ray McGovern characterize them as window dressing?

I resent that, Costello said curtly, looking him momentarily in the eye. We've worked very hard to invite women into ministry in this parish, and we've been more successful than anybody else in the archdiocese. Yes, we are confined by sexist doctrine. Yes, we are policed by a sexist hierarchy. But we are making progress, and you seem to be one of the only people who doesn't recognize that. When this protest began, I felt supported by this group, she concluded. I don't feel that way anymore.

Costello's remarks gave the few members of the Working Groups who still supported the Standing reason for pause. It was one thing for the protest to splinter the parish; some resistance was to be expected. But alienating one's natural allies was another matter. One by one, they voiced their support of Madden's plan. He is offering us a way out, they told McGovern. Declare victory, and let's move on.

But why should we let ourselves off the hook when discrimination against women is still so blatant? he asked. What gives us the right not to resist?

As the evening wore on, Madden saw his chances for winning a compromise dwindling. He foresaw the possibility that the Standing could become a constant headache for him, just as it had for Jim Maier, and he lashed out at the one person obstructing a solution.

"Why don't you just leave?" he barked at McGovern. He meant leave the Church. And when McGovern attempted to respond, he said again, "Why don't you just leave?"

It was not clear, by the end of the evening, whether McGovern had a single supporter among those who had gathered that night. But it was clear that he was not going to sit down.

MADDEN AND McGOVERN had been meeting to discuss the Standing for longer than most parishioners realized. They had begun three months earlier, when McGovern contacted Madden after their dispute at the open forum on women's ordination. On that occasion they had had lunch in a Georgetown restaurant, and the priest had attempted to counsel the protester in patience.

"You know this is going to happen, don't you?" he said, referring to the eventual ordination of women as priests.

"That's the wrong question," McGovern replied. "The question is, what are you doing to make it happen?"

That exchange captured the critical difference between the two men. Both were known for their bluntness, their stubbornness and a romantic devotion to their Irish heritage. Perhaps most significant, each was accomplished at maneuvering for advantage within a large and powerful institution -- the Church in Madden's case and the CIA in McGovern's.

But McGovern had wearied of that game and begun to regret the compromises he had made to remain a player in the agency. He took early retirement, fell hard for the new and more intuitive theology being taught at Georgetown and other American Catholic universities, for the feminist critique of American patriarchy, and for the virtues of a simpler, and more emotional, way of living his life.

Madden, on the other hand, found plenty of room to maneuver within the Church. He had imbibed progressive theology at an earlier age than had McGovern, but its influence was balanced by his conviction that celebrating the liturgy was the most profound act a person could perform. It was imperative that he maintain his viability as a priest.

Had the future of Holy Trinity not been at stake, the men might have remained friendly verbal sparring partners, but Madden felt that the situation was forcing his hand. After he was named pastor they met privately once again, and this time he went on the offensive. When McGovern told him that this protest was a matter of conscience, Madden reminded him of the September day in 1649 when a man with a similarly clear conscience led an army into the Irish village of Drogheda and slaughtered everyone who lived there.

The reference was to Oliver Cromwell, the great Puritan persecutor of Ireland, and McGovern, who knew his Irish history, was offended by the comparison.

"You better sit down," Madden said. "The cardinal is angry about this."

"Excuse me, Larry," McGovern replied. "You are the one who has taken the vow of obedience. Not me."

After his meeting with the Working Groups, Madden was beginning to realize that maintaining a decent relationship with McGovern wasn't getting him anywhere. And so, during the first week of July, he began to review his options.

Calling the police was out of the question. It would begin his pastorate on a disastrous note and leave him with a divided parish for the duration of his tenure. Also there was the nagging legal question: What, exactly, was McGovern's crime?

He could demand from the pulpit that McGovern sit down. But if McGovern didn't sit down, that got him nowhere. He could ask for a show of hands: How many people think Ray should sit down? But what if he didn't command a majority? Or what if his majority was slim?

Perhaps he could preach a homily against the Standing and leave it at that. But that might simply underscore his powerlessness.

Ultimately Madden decided to ignore McGovern as he stood, to try to marginalize him gradually.

It was a cagey strategy, but it ignored one countervailing factor: Opponents of the Standing were so aggrieved that they would not let the issue rest. McGovern, to their minds, had politicized the liturgy, and now they were prepared to politicize any changes that Madden or Costello suggested in the ceremonial life of the parish. Someone had to pay for the havoc McGovern had wreaked.

To complicate matters further, Madden learned in mid-July that Cardinal Hickey himself would make his first visit to Holy Trinity in more than six years, to preside at the Mass at which Madden would be installed as pastor. How he would respond if McGovern was still standing was anyone's guess.

THE MASS WAS TO begin at 9:30 that October morning. It was 9:10 when Ray McGovern and his daughter Christin arrived and found a pew off the center aisle. McGovern sat, slipped his blue stole over his shoulders, and then stood in prayer. The church filled up around him. There were two others standing, both of them high school students.

At 9:20, the children's choir, 55 strong, processed up the right aisle, assembled around the piano and sang a heartfelt if quavering rendition of "O Day of Peace."

After the cardinal and his party processed to the front of the church, the lay people in the procession filed into pews, while the priests, deacons and altar boys ascended to the altar. Then the auxiliary bishop stepped forward and read the letter in which Cardinal Hickey officially designated Madden as pastor of Holy Trinity Church.

When the bishop had finished, the congregation rose in a standing ovation. On the altar, Madden embraced his fellow Jesuits.

The Mass proceeded at a stately pace, and after a deacon proclaimed the Gospel, Hickey stepped to the lectern and found McGovern and the two students standing before him.

He was glad to be visiting "this wonderful parish," he said, for he had been eager for a chance to "reflect prayerfully" with them on what was "most basic" in their community.

His eyes strayed from his text to the place where McGovern was standing, but he did not break his homiletic stride. For the next 20 minutes he explained the role of the pastor in "teaching, preaching and sanctifying." His bloodless prose was enlivened by a pleasant, sincere delivery.

If the cardinal intended to lambaste McGovern, threaten the parish, he was working up to it gradually. Whenever he looked up, his eyes seemed to find McGovern's, but his words made only oblique reference to the Standing.

"I am giving Father Madden a challenging responsibility," the cardinal said in closing. "I ask your support. Work with him for the unity, the harmony and the faith of this unique parish family." Then he turned and walked to his seat behind the altar.

There had been no showdown.

In a few moments the cardinal and the priest came to the front of the sanctuary, where Madden was to take the Oath of Fidelity. As they rose, a parishioner hurried up the left aisle to get a good photographic angle. She was planning to present him with a collage of her pictures.

But as she looked through her viewfinder, she realized that there were no women in her frame. Lowering the camera from her eye, she realized that there were none on the altar. After she had taken her pictures, she returned to her pew and remained standing.

The Mass resumed after the oath, and once the final meditative strains of the Communion hymn had faded, Madden walked to the lectern. This time there was silence, rather than applause.

What point would he put on this ambiguous day? What could he tell them, in the cardinal's presence, about the future of their church?

Madden addressed neither of these questions. At least not directly.

Today was the day of what a boy at Holy Trinity School had called his "pastorizing," he said, and he was honored that they had shared it with him. He reminded them of all those who were with them in spirit that morning, and all those who had labored to make their parish a spirit-filled place.

And then with great subtlety, he framed the question that separated the man who sat behind him on the altar, wearing his miter, from the people who sat -- and stood -- before him in the pews. The most important part of his job, Madden said, was "preaching the Word." It was a sentiment to which no one in the church would have objected, yet it defined their divisions.

For the cardinal, the Word was a series of laws and customs based on a definitive revelation and codified by Church-sanctioned experts down through the ages. But for the people of Holy Trinity, the Word was the scriptural example of Jesus Christ, who said little about the issues that obsessed the hierarchy, but much about the extravagant love and forgiveness of their God, the necessity of opening oneself to the Holy Spirit, and the imperative of finding God in one's neighbors.

"The Word of God is the best thing we have to show us the glory of our lives," Madden said. "It is what God gives us to help us be that piece of the Kingdom that he desires right here on our street."

Which Word he proposed to preach at Holy Trinity he did not say, but the congregation sang him out with resounding joy.

AFTER MASS MOST of the worshipers streamed along 36th Street to the Car Barn, a former trolley garage that had been converted into a reception and conference facility with expansive views of the Potomac.

The cardinal and his party were among the last to arrive. The morning had gone reasonably well, from their perspective. The liturgy had been lovely. There had been no rebellious excess on the part of the Jesuits or the parish staff, and the protest, though distracting, had been limited in scope. Perhaps Holy Trinity was not in such bad shape after all.

Madden showed the cardinal to a seat, and no sooner was Hickey comfortable than parishioners began lining up to greet him. He spent the next hour shaking hands and wishing people well, beaming with sincerity, but seldom engaging in real conversation.

Near the end of the line stood Ray McGovern, and as he drew closer, one of the cardinal's aides began edging toward Hickey to ask whether it might not be time to go. But the aide was a polite man, and he found himself detained in a series of conversations, so that by the time he reached the cardinal's side, Hickey was already shaking McGovern's hand.

McGovern sat down beside him, and began speaking in soft, earnest tones, not unlike the cardinal's own. He wondered, he asked, whether the cardinal had noticed that there had been no women on the altar, and whether his eminence had given any thought to the message that sent to Catholic girls. "Now, Ray," the cardinal said. Everyone has their place in the Church, and we love them all.

But it seems their place is below our place, McGovern countered.

It was not below, the cardinal said, it was beside. But men and women imaged God in different ways.

Maybe, McGovern said. But that didn't seem justification for excluding women from the priesthood, or from the councils of the Church.

"Now, Ray," Hickey said again. The Holy Father has very strong feelings about this.

When he heard those words, McGovern sensed that he and Hickey had reached the limits of their discourse. It had taken only a minute for the cardinal to fall back on the Holy Father's having said so. He hadn't expected to change Hickey's mind, but he had hoped to puncture a few of his arguments. That would be impossible if the cardinal's only justification was fealty to the pope.

Though McGovern was frustrated, some of his ambivalent supporters, watching discreetly from around the room, were cheered. McGovern had taken his argument with the hierarchy to the hierarchy; he had made Hickey hear him. Whether such quiet confrontations would eventually achieve the conversion of the Roman hierarchy, or whether persistent and pervasive dissent would ultimately breed an American schism, they could not say. But for that one morning there was honor in standing, however metaphorically, with a man who had made the hierarchy acknowledge what it preferred to deny.

But it was only one morning.

On the following Sunday, as Cardinal Hickey stood wreathed in incense on the altar at St. Matthew's Cathedral, celebrating Mass, Ray McGovern was at Holy Trinity, standing in his familiar place. He still stands there today.

Jim Naughton is a senior editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. This article is excerpted from Catholics in Crisis: An American Parish Fights for Its Soul, to be published in October by Addison-Wesley. Copyright 1996 by Jim Naughton. Reprinted by permission.

From "Catholics in Crisis: An American Parish Fights for Its Soul." Copyright 1996 by Jim Naughton. To be published by Addison-Wesley in October. All rights reserved. CAPTION: Holy Trinity's parish center: In time, not one, but two pastors would have to confront the Standing. CAPTION: As Holy Trinity's pastor when the Standing began, the Rev. Jim Maier tried to push his parishioners to resolve the impasse among themselves. CAPTION: Christin and Ray McGovern: Her protest inspired his. Top: The building that houses Holy Trinity's rectory, and parishioners on their way to Mass. CAPTION: McGovern, wearing his blue stole.