The editor of one of the nation's most influential diocesan Roman Catholic papers has urged Pope John Paul II to revoke the Vatican ruling that will prohibit women from distributing communion at papal masses here next month.

Don Zirkel, editor of the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Tablet, which serves the most populous diocese in the country, sharply criticized as "sexist" the Vatican's directive.

"When in Rome, we have been advised, do as the Romans do," Zirkel wrote. "It would not seem disrespectful to suggest to the Vatican planners of the pope's trip to the United States that when in America, it is appropriate to do as the Americans do."

Zirkel's paper, the official journal of the Brooklyn diocese, has a circulation of 100,000. Such sharp criticism of a Vatican directive by an official church publication is unusual, even for such a liberal voice as The Tablet.

Thousands of specially trained women -- Zirkel's wife among them -- and lay men assist in serving communion in local parishes every Sunday as special ministers of the Eucharist. The 1970 Vatican ruling authorized this unprecedented involvement of lay persons in the mass stipulated that special ministers were to serve only when there were not enough priests or deacons.

Many American parishes regularly schedule both lay men and women to serve at masses to give them, particularly the women, a broader role in church affairs.

In preparation for the upcoming papal trip, the Vatican has reminded American church leaders that they must go by the book at masses here, and since there will be a surplus of ordained men volunteering for the memorable events the lay women and men may not serve.

Calling that ruling "a technicality," Zirkel pointed to the widespread use of women eucharistic ministers in the American church.

"Polite guests are everywhere expected to respect the culture of their hosts," Zirkel continued. "Our culture frowns on sexism and all forms of public insults to women. I am distressed that women, even though appropriatly trained and formally installed as special ministers of the eucharist, will not be permitted to distribute communion at any mass celebrated in this country by Pope John Paul II."

More predictable was the reaction of the independent National Catholic Reporter, edited in Kansas City, Mo.

Writing about the exclusion of women from distributing communion at the papal masses, the paper writes in this week's edition: "This macho church still doesn't understand, the Vatican doesn't understand and the pope doesn't understand that the church in this place may well depend for its survival (as it primarily does already for its vitality) on women."

Bishop Michael McAuliffe of the Jefferson City, (Mo.) diocese, chairman of the American hierarchy's committee on Women in Society and the Church, said his group will not raise the question with the Vatican despite appeals from Catholic feminists.

"I don't know what the women are concerned about," McAuliffe said in a telephone interview. "They [Vatican officials] are just following the ordinary rules. It would apply to extraordinary ministers who are men as well as women."