Gustave Zuluaga is an unemployed waiter, sometime teacher and full-time Catholic who lives with his wife and two children in quiet little Rockville house where a crucifix dominates the living room. They are Hispanic.

The family of Sylvester Judd, a Washington cabdriver, spans three generations, including 12 children and 11 grandchildren. They, too, are Catholic, and they are black.

Eugene and Jane Kane, the parents of nine children, live in a sprawling eight-bedroom house not far from former Maryland Governor Blair Lee, with a swimming pool, three-car garage and two horses. They and their children attend mass every Sunday, as they have all their lives. They are white.

On Sunday, Oct. 7, these three families will join together at the Mall to carry the bread, the wine and the chalice to Pope John Paul II during his historic mass.

Chosen by Cardinal William W. Baum to represent the ethnic make-up of the Washington Archdiocese, they also find themselves at the symbolic center of one of the most troublesome issues facing the Catholic Church in the United States today.

The universal church has for centuries been dominated by whites in this country, but now it is struggling -- sometimes haphazardly, sometimes successfully -- to reach out to the growing minorities.

The families that carry the gifts to the pope represent, as much as anything else, the kind of people the church is attempting to touch, and to reconcile with each other, in the pluralistic society of today.

When Gustavo and Marta Zuluaga heard they would be among the three families carrying gifts to the pope during his mass on the Mall, Marta was so excited she could hardly speak.

"I think I might faint," she said recently.

But Gustavo, 38, began to wonder and worry about the significance of his family's role as, in effect, stand-ins for the fast-growing Hispanic Catholic minority in the United States.

"We are going to take all our problems, all our needs [to the mass]. When you see God you want to tell him all your problems," Zuluaga said. "We're not just taking the bread and wine of an offering, we are taking ourselves."

Since he came to the United States from Colombia 13 years ago, Zuluaga said, he has held 29 jobs, briefly teaching in a bilingual elementary school, but mostly waiting tables and busing dishes in Washington area restaurants. He is now unemployed.

When Zuluaga talks of his own problems he tends to talk of them as problems of the Hispanic community as a whole.

"Everybody faces here the language barrier and the culture barrier," Zuluaga said recently. Even the names of his American-born children show it. Juan Rafael, 7, is known as John Ralph at school.

Marta, 37, who is also Colombian-born and has lived in this country for nine years, stays at home to take care of their son and 6-year-old daughter Gloria Luz. She still does not speak fluent English.

"When I came here," Gustavo Zuluaga said, "there was a lot of discrimination, not in the law, but person to person." Though attitudes are changing, he said, that sort of discrimination still exists.

"We have a lot of capabilities," he said. "We are rich inside.We have a lot to give. But because of this oppression of sorts, we are not free to give."

Until about 10 years ago the Catholic Church had taken relatively little interest in such concerns. Even today only about 3 percent of its 49,000 priests in the United States are Hispanic, though some church officials estimate the number of Hispanic parishioners at more than 25 percent of the total Catholic population.

About 10 to 15 percent of the parishioners in the Washington Archdiocese are thought to be Hispanic, and the number, according to local church officials, is growing.

As the nation's Hispanic population has burgeoned, so too, belatedly, has the church's concern about it.

Intense efforts are now being made through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs and other groups to bring more Hispanics into the priesthood, to see that more are elevated in the church heirarchy, and to increase the participation of the Hispanic laity.

In Washington there are now more than a dozen Catholic churches offering Spanish-language masses, and the Capilla Latina (Latin Chapel) at the Mackin School near the Washington Hilton is crowded with people from all over Latin America each Sunday.

But Gustavo and Marta Zuluaga teach the ritual and the meaning of the mass to children at the Capilla every week, and are well aware that the chapel itself is a makeshift affair in a building on loan for a day. Its parishioners are part of, yet separate from, the parish of St. Matthews as a whole.

"When you go to the root of things," said Zuluaga, "it's hard to know what to do. You don't know whether to create a Spanish community in the parish, or to integrate us. We Spanish people," he smiled, "are very difficult to deal with."

Mary Agatha Judd, mother of 12, and grandmother of 11, wrinkled her brow in a fleeting moment of awe as she sat in her modest rowhouse at 40 New York Ave. NW.

"This is something I never thought would happen to me," she said. "I never thought I would get this close to the pope."

Mary Judd, a 52-year-old volunteer church worker, and Sylvester Judd, a 56-year-old cabdriver, plan to have as many members of their extended family with them as they can when they carry the gifts to the pontiff on Oct. 7.

Only three of their dozen children, who range from 14 to 30 years old, still live at home. Six more live in the area and the other three are scattered in New York, North Carolina and Kentucky.

But the Judds are the only one of the three families whose participating members span three generations -- a characteristic sought by both the archdiocese and the national Secretariat for Black Catholics that recommended them.

Mary Judd was born and raised a Catholic in St. Mary's County in southern Maryland, an area containing some of the oldest enclaves of black Catholics in America. Sylvester, by contrast, grew up as a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Though they have been married 33 years, Sylvester Judd did not convert to Catholicism until two years ago.

In the archdiocese of Washington, the Judds are part of one of the largest proportional black Catholic populations in the nation, comprising about 20 percent of the nearly 400,000 parishioners in the area. But to serve the black Catholics here there are only about 20 black priests.

The Secretariat for Black Catholics was established in 1974 to provide an archdiocesan agency to consult with the cardinal on uniquely black problems, but secretariat officials contend that they are often ignored.

Though there is a growing trend among black Catholics toward so-called "gospel masses" with evangelistic singing, the Judds adhere to the more traditional European style of worship at St. Aloysius Church on North Capitol Street.

As a community worker there, Mary Judd seems to feel at home and distant from the political turmoils of the church hierarchy.

"We feel honored," she said. "I'm very excited."

Eugene and Jane Kane were interviewed in their sprawling, eight-bedroom home in White Oak, Md., one block from the St. John the Baptist Church. They are traditional, Republican, and family-oriented. They have nine children, who range in age from 8 to 21. What thrills them most, asked Gene Kane, is that they were asked "as a family, not just Jane and I."

Both come from large, Catholic Washington families. They grew up within eight blocks of each other in the area of the District of Columbia around Georgia and Missouri Avenues, and went to the same parochial school.

Gene Kane comes from a family of seven, who have produced among them 39 children. Jane Kane was the last of five children; there are 19 offspring from them. When they sit down to Christmas dinner, there are 85 people to be served.

Gene Kane has several trucking and moving businesses, and is now serving as vice-chairman of the American Trucking Association.

His house has a small swimming pool, three-car garage, and horse pasture. There is a large camper parked in the driveway for family vacations.

In an age when large families are unpopular and most mothers work outside the home, Jane Kane has chosen the opposite track. She resents any suggestion that full-time mothering is not important work.

"It's my job and I do it as professionally as possible," she said. "How many businesses do you have?" she asked her husband, who answered "about half a dozen."

"Well, I have nine. Each of my kids is a corporation."

The Kanes were planning to see the pope even before they got the call telling them they had been chosen to participate in the mass. For them, the trip the two of them took to Rome three years ago for Cardinal Baum's swearing-in was the highlight of their life; this honor exceeds even their wildest expectations.

"This is about as close to God as you can get and still be alive," said Kane.

Of their children, seven are currently in Catholic schools; of the other two, one attends the University of Maryland and the other is an electronics service technician.

Also contributing to this story was Washington Post Staff Writer Paul W. Valentine.