The morning after her extraordinary challenge to Pope John Paul II's views on women in the church had turned her into an instant celebrity, Sister Theresa Kane took firm steps to remove herself from the limelight.

Gathering her staff around her early Monday morning at the Potomac headquarters of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, the order of nuns she heads, Kane, 43, quietly announced her decision: she would grant no interviews, they were to make no biographical information about her available to the press. There would be no media hype, no cult of personalty built around her. It was the issue -- the whole future of women in the church -- that was important; not personalities.

That decided, she took off for Connecticut for a church meeting that had been scheduled months earlier, leaving the constantly ringing telephones at the Potomac generalate behind her.

Kane's decision to shun the limelight is in the church's best tradition of the obdedient, faceless nun, but her appearance at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception last Sunday in welcoming the pope reflected a new dimension of that tradition.

Graciously, and with utmost respect, she followed the pope's own style in her remarks: make your point by quoting your listeners' own words and actions back at him.

She praised the pontiff for his courage, his concern for those who suffer, his admonition to correct the systems of injustice that oppress.

Then she got to the point. "As I share this privileged moment with you, Your Holiness, I urge you to be mindful of the intense suffering and plain which is part of the life of many women in these United States," she said.

". . . The church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church."

Many of the assembled nuns greeted her remarks with sustained applause; others writhed in dismay and embarrasment at what the felt was an affront to the pope. The pope made no response other than to lay his hand on Kane's head in blessing when she knelt obediently before him at the conclusion of her words of welcome. Some churchmen who are familiar with the acoustical problems of the Shrine speculated that the pope could not even hear her well enough to comprehend what she said.

If the pope did not respond, a good portion of the Catholic world did in the hours and days that followed.

While Kane was not asked -- and did not volunteer -- to clear her remarks with the men who planned the service for the gathering of sisters, she had consulted with fellow officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which forms the official liaison between religious orders of women in the United States and the Vatican's Sacred Congregation of Religious. She has been president o f the umbrella organization since August.

"She showed it to me before the service," said Sister Clare Fitzgerald of Wilton, Conn., vice president of the leadership conference, "and she asked me: 'Do you think it's all right? do you think I should delete something?"

"I read it quietly and prayerfully, and I thought it was fine. Then she did the same thing with Sister Mary Dooley [immediate past president of the conference] and she read it quietly and prayerfully," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said she thought that the bulk of the reactions from nuns around the country has been largely favorable. "Any dismay hasn't been with the contents but with the timing," she said.

But there has been dissent. The bead of a small Illinois order. Mother M. Sixtina of the Sisters of St. Francis of the martyr St. George, took a quarter-page ad in yesterday's Washington Post to apologize for what she termed Kane's "public rudeness."

We who most likely speak for the large majority of religious women in the United States, apologize to His Holiness Pope Paul II for the public rudeness shown him by Sister Theresa Kane" last Sunday, said the ad, which was signed by Sixtina as the provincial superior of the German-based order. The order has 68 nuns in this country.

Sixtina also said in the advertisement that "Sister Theresa was not only impertinent to the Holy Father but she also offended the millions of us who love hime and gladly accept his teaching."

Unlike Kane, Sixtina has no reluctance to explain her position to the media. According to an aide at her Alton, Ill., convent, she spent most of Friday with reporters and film crews.

Sixtina said she authorized spending nearly $3,000 of the order's funds for the advertisment "because we thought it should be known across the country that there are people who disagree" with Kane's actions last Sunday.

"I am convinced that the number of those who disapprove is much larger than those who agree," she added.

Sr. Lora Ann Quinonez, executive director of the leadership conference, conceded that her office here has received a stack of letters and Mailgrams reflecting views on both sides of the issue. She said she has no intentions of tabulating numbers pro and con. "What's important," she said "is the very real way in which the letters reflect where the Catholic Church is on these issues."

Bishop Thomas Kelly, who as general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was in the papal entourage throughout the week, noted that Kane "expressed herself with great respect and devotion to the Holy Father personally and I'm full of admiration for that."

He added that "the only question that could be raised was whether that was the proper forum. But that's between her and the pope."

Kane's partisans are quick to point out that the request of the leadership conference's for private conversation with the pope while he was in this country did not receive an answer. That is why, Fitzgerald explained, Kane "seized the moment" of the welcome at the Shrine to express the concerns of the women.

Without such frank expression, "how would we ever expect this marvelous man to relate to our country?" Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald made it clear that the 53 nuns with blue arm bands who stood throughout the papal homily to protest the church's refusal to ordain women were no part of Kane's plan.

"She wouldn't have preferred her message to have that context," Fitzgerald said, adding: "I think that [demonstration of the standees] was unfortunate, but of course they have their rights."

Kane and other top leaders of the leadership conference will make another try at dialogue with the pope when they go to Rome next month for their annual call at the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Affairs of Religious. Their chances of a papal audience are flawed, however, by a scheduling conflict. They will be at the Vatican at the same time as the worldwide assembly of the church's cardinals, specially summoned by Pope John Paul before his American tour.

Kane, a New Yorker who headed one of the nine provinces of her 5,000-member order before being elected administrator general nearly three years ago, does not, as far as her friends know, believe herself called to the priesthood.

She has not been particularly active among the more vocal partisans of opening the priesthood to women. At the same time her remarks reflected the conviction of many women both in and out of the church that, as long as women are barred from the priesthood solely because they are women, they are condemned by the church to be second-class Christians.

While the audience and the setting for her brief remarks last Sunday were extraordinary, what she had to say was nothing new, either for her or for her predecessors in the leadership conference.

Last August, in San Antonio, when she was installed in her one-year term as president of the nuns' organization, Kane reflected on the task today of what used to be called "mother superior" of religious orders of women.

"A primary responsibility of leadership is to effect social change," she told the 600 assembled women's leaders, "to bring about transformation within ourselves and within the world.

"We have a responsibility to use the power with which we have been entrusted for the building of this earth by speaking the truth courageously," she said.

"It is my belief and conviction that we who are garthered together in San Antonio in 1979 -- we who as women gathered in another city in 1956 [when the leadership conference was founded] and called ourselves obedient daughters of the church -- will move into the final part of this 20th century as obedient leaders of our church, leaders who recognize, affirm and reverence the power that is ours for listening, for speaking, for acting."