Her face still mirrored the pain and upheaval of the recent divorce that ended her 23-year marriage. An edge of anger over a new hurt tinged her carefully controlled voice.

"I have five children, 11 to 22 years old. I'm not too happy with going to church and listening to the priest talk about happy marriages -- sitting there with my sons like I've done something wrong," she said.

Divorce, the final ending of a relationship that began in love and hope, is a painful process at best. For Catholics, like this still-attractive middle-aged woman, divorce carries added guilt over the failure to live up to the fundamental church teaching, stressed from earliest childhood, that marriage is indissoluble.

She and about 250 other Catholics who bear the burden of failed marriages gathered last Saturday at the stately St. Mary's Seminary here for a day-long conference, of separated and divorced Catholics, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"A lot of good and sincere people are really suffering and it's important to at least try to respond to that suffering and need," was the way Archbishop William D. Borders explained his presence at the conference. The archbishop gave the keynote address on "Conscience," moderated an afternoon panel and celebrated the concluding mass.

Many leaders in the Roman Catholic Church today are caught in the conflict between upholding the sanctity of the family, which they see threatened by soaring divorce rates, and ministering to the anguish of those caught in intolerable marriages.

They are also faced with the hard statistic of an estimated 5 million divorced Catholics in this country today, many of whom still cling to their church.

"The thing I am impressed with is that these people love their church, they love their God and they want to come back into the church," observed the Rev. Paul Knapp of Annapolis, who is the moderator of one of the 11 groups of Separated and Divorced Catholics scattered throughout the archdiocese.

"Most of us grew up with the theology of the church that it was a very legalistic institution, but it has changed to a human institution," said Dr. William McCarthy of Columbia, a psychologist with the Maryland State Department of Education, a divorced Catholic and one of the leaders at Saturday's conference.

When he get divorced four years ago, he said, "I personally felt, I am a Catholic and I'm going to stay a Catholic. I told them I refuse to be a backdoor Catholic. I'm going to walk up the center aisle (to take communion). This is a matter between me and God. Don't anybody get in the way. I'm a part of the institution and I'm going to stay a part of the institution whether the institution likes it or not.'"

Yet, mixed with the determination were feelings of guilt and shame, he recalled. "You go to mass and feel like you didn't belong there . . . I wasn't able to go to my own parish, as a single parent, with my two boys. I just wasn't ready to deal with that."

Instead, he drove to a retreat center in Marriotsville, Md., and attended mass there.

Feelings of guilt were so deep, he said, that after his divorce "I took off my wedding ring, but then I went around with my left hand in my pocket so people wouldn't know I was a divorced Catholic." His recollection was greeted with vigorous nods and knowing smiles from others in the group.

Many of those present at Saturday's conference had attended meetings of Parents Without Partners but felt that, for them, something was missing.

'I really want to get more involved with Catholics who are in the same situation I am," said a middle-aged woman, newly divorced. "I feel like I don't belong in the Church any more."

She was urged to contact one of the groups of Separated and Divorced Catholics, which usually meet once a month or oftener.

"I have seen people come into these groups entirely broken and in a few months they were back together again," said Father Knapp.

His presence, and that of fellow priests or deacons in such groups, he said, "is symbolic that the church really does care" about divorced Catholics. In addition, he said, "a lot of people have to get out of their system every gripe they have with the church, and it's important to have the church there to hear it."

According to church law, Catholics may not marry again after civil divorce unless their first marriage is annulled by the church. In the United States, but not elsewhere, those who remarry without church annulment are automatically excommunicated. A number of groups within the church have petitioned the American bishops to remove this ruling.

Despite a 21-fold increase nationwide in the number of nullity petitions accepted by church tribunals in the last six years -- due in large part to new norms established by the Canon Law Society -- the annulment process is still a dark and shadowy area, even among otherwise knowledgeable Catholics.

The Rev. Raymond W. Gribbin, a judge on the tribunal of the Baltimore archdiocese, sought to shed light on the whole question of divorce and annulment.

"A generation ago," Father Gribbin said, Catholics heard the church say, 'If you get a divorce, you are in bad shape and we don't like you.' Mind you, the church didn't actually say this, but this is what people perceived.

"It's about time people realize that the getting of a civil divorce doesn't put people in bad standing with the church," he continued.

"A generation ago, people heard the church say that if you marry and get a divorce and remarry (without an annulment), you are going to hell," Father Gribben said.

"If you marry and get a divorce and remarry, you are breaking the law of the church. The only judgment the church can make is about your standing in the church. The church can't say anything about your relationship to God because we don't know that. We can't say you're going to burn in hell because we don't know that."

There is a "big need," Father Gribben said, "for the church to continue what has been begun in recent years -- an investigation into the theology of marriage," which, he suggested, might help bring church law into closer relationship with human experience.

In the final analysis, Archbishop Borders told his flock, "informed conscience" must be the guide. "No one," he said, "can move into the life of anyone else and make his or her decisions."