It has been nearly eight months since she set off an uproar in the Roman Catholic Church with a welcoming speech to Pope John Paul II. She still gets two, three, half a dozen letters a day about it.

But Sister Theresa Kane says she has never regretted making what turned out to be the only public challenge to the pope during his American visit last fall -- a welcoming speech at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here that told of the "intense suffering and pain" she said many American Catholic women feel.

Since that time, the 43-year-old nun has shunned the limelight, turning down requests for interviews until now, to try to shift attention away from herself to the larger issue of the role of women in the Catholic church. She also hoped that a low profile would help her win a private audience with John Paul, a hope that has not been realized yet.

When she is not zipping around the country on behalf of the two groups she heads -- the 4,700-member order of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization for American nuns -- Kane operates out of a red-carpeted office in her order's sprawling motherhouse in Potomac.

Built in a day when nuns were kept apart from the world -- and when there were many more of them -- the building and its plush surroundings have become a white elephant that the order has been trying for more than a year to sell, with the proceeds earmarked for shelter for homeless women.

Kane's office is a mix of the religious and secular worlds in which she moves. An enormous banner with the legend, "My God I Trust You," dominates the room. On the opposite wall is Renaissance-style triptych of the Madonna and Child; nearby is a reproduction of Andrew Wyeth's painting, "Christina's World." Contemporary bookshelves house a stereo -- usually tuned to "one of the good music stations" -- and books like "Roots" share space with more traditional Catholic works.

Other members of the order wander in and out, most of them dressed in pantsuits. Kane herself is wearing the same tailored brown suit she wore when she greeted the pope -- despite his admonitions to nuns -- then and later -- to get back into their traditional habits.

When she was first asked to greet the pontiff on behalf of American nuns, Kane said she knew that "it would be an important moment." She called around to see if other nuns would greet him in other cities. The answer came back no, she would be the only woman to address John Paul in the more than 60 formal appearances he would make in this country. And that only strenghthened her determination to say, as she put it then, "what is in my heart . . . "

"I just thought from the beginning that it would be inappropriate for a woman to stand up there and not raise the women's issue," she recalled.

Kane talked with the other officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and drafted the text of her remarks. She then watched the pope on television, in Boston, in New York and at the United Nations, where he spoke strongly in defense of human rights around the world.

"Then came Philadelphia," she recalled, where the pontiff, in his first comment on church issues during the trip, reiterated the church's traditional ban on ordaining women as priests.

The Bronx-born nun had thought her speech would "cause some controversy," but she hadn't realized what a media event she was stepping into. She knew that 7,000 nuns would be at the Shrine and the papal party, but she never thought about the television cameras.

Even when someone reminded her the night before that TV cameras would be present, she recalled, "I thought, 'Who watches television at that hour of the morning?'" The pontiff's visit to the Shrine had been scheduled for 8 on a Sunday morning.

By noon she found out. She got a moment to call her office at the Sisters of Mercy motherhouse and found they had already gotten telephone calls from Oregon and Washington state. "That's when it dawned on me that it was just a sisters' audience," she said.

She had told the pontiff that women must be given the chance to be included "in all ministries of our church." And the controversy began.

Phone calls, telegrams and letters poured into the order's Potomac headquarters. "For the first couple of weeks, we had two women who did nothing but answer the phones," she said. "Some of the callers were very hostile. I had to commend the sisters and the staff. They were very Christian in their response."

Kane took none of the calls herself, a decision she said she made, not to avoid the unpleasantness, but to remove herself from the spotlight.

Initially, she said, the reactions to her speech were divided "about 50-50."

But now the messages are "overwhelmingly positive."

She has been surprised that non-Catholics have been as interested as Catholics. Two days after her speech, she walked into her office and found a bouquet of red roses and a loaf of bread from Mormons for ERA. "I was overwhelmed that the first gift should come from Mormons," she said.

A few weeks later, when Mormon ERA activist Sonia Johnson faced a church trial that led to her excommunication, Kane and the Leadership Conference sent her a message of support. "I was very, very pained by that (excommunication)," Kane said. "That's almost like capital punishment."

Kane, who followed an older sister into religious life, has since become a cause celebre in other parts of the world. "Many people in the Third World countries have been in touch with me," she said.

"Not long ago a bishop -- he's about 75 -- from one of the Asian countries -- called me up when he was in Washington for the weekend. He said he is working very hard through his contacts at the Vatican to bring up the women's ordination question because of the great shortage of priests in so many parts of the world," she said.

Does she want to be a priest? "It's not a simple 'yes' or 'no' situation" she responds. "If I can be of more service to the church (as a priest), I am willing to be a person who could be tested -- I think it's something we need to test out."

While she believes the church should ordain women to the priesthood, she sees that question as only "one of many that should be considered." She would like to see a reappraisal of "the whole question of ministry in the church with a new look at the role of women, from altar girl (now forbidden) to priest.

In contrast to the stereotype of the nun who serves as a teacher or nurse, Kane was assigned in 1959 to handle the business affairs of a small Catholic hospital in Port Jervis, N.Y., after she had earned a degree in economics from Manhattanville College. In 1970 she was elected provincial, or head, of the New York province of her order and in 1977, she was elected the national head -- "even though I wasn't even a candidate."

Two months ago, her order's triennial representative assembly reaffirmed its support of her, reelecting her with 85 percent of the vote. There was some discussion of her speech -- one woman accused her of being "arrogant" -- but it was only one of the issues that came up, she said.

There was some discussion, she said, of her confrontation with the pope, but it was "only one of several issues. We spent a lot of time in non-defensive dialogue. One sister said she thought I had been arrogant. I said I was sorry if it came across that way; I didn't intend it to be arrogant."

Though a number of nuns attending the event at the Shrine were outraged by Kane's greeting, she is convinced that she is not out of step with most American nuns on the women's issue -- and that, in fact, many are far more militant than she is.

"We tend to elect the more conservative people" to leadership posts," she said to prove her point.

She still hasn't given up hope of eventually getting a personal audience with John Paul to express her concerns.

In February, Archbishop Jean Jadot, the Vatican's representative in this country, notified Kane that her request had reached the pope, that he agreed that there should be a dialogue with American nuns, but that it would be done through the proper channels -- namely the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, which supervises nuns' orders worldwide.

Kane and her associates in the Leadership Conference, however, feel that avenue is already open to them and are still seeking a personal audience with the pontiff.

"It is important that he have an understanding of religious life, not just in one culture," she said of the Polish pontiff. "The U.S. experience of renewal in religious life is different from that in other countries . . . There is a real need for communication and dialogue in our church . . . so we won't continue getting a message (from Rome) that is, in essence, somewhat pre-Vatican II [the major reforms the church began 16 years ago.]"

Kane has watched the exodus of American nuns from the church over the past few years: "If they have experienced that kind of pain, I shouldn't say it couldn't happen to me, that I would never leave the church." But she doesn't think she would ever take that step.

"The life of faith is very, very real to me -- life with God . . . and that can be done in the Roman Catholic Church, though the Catholic Church is not God."