He is the pastor of 400,000 faithful, the point man for the American Catholic Church's concerns over El Salvador, a well-connected advocate in the political arena, an effective administrator.

In 16 months as archbishop of Washington, the Most Rev. James A. Hickey has injected new vitality and direction into the church here, displaying a leadership style that contrasts sharply with the aloof and scholarly tone of his predecessor.

"Everyone I talk to gives him a pretty good rating," said Msgr. George Higgins, an elder statesman of American Catholicism now at Catholic University. "The only complaint I hear is that he works too hard."

With a few notable exceptions, Hickey largely has kept out of the headlines since coming here from Cleveland in August of 1980. He purposely kept a low profile as he moved quietly and decisively in the diocese which, when he took it over, was not in the best of health.

Hickey's immediate predecessor, Cardinal William Baum, was a scholar and a man of obvious devotion to the faith. But administration and decision-making did not come easily to him. In addition, his attention increasingly was focused on the Vatican, where he now holds a high position. During much of his six-year tenure here, the archdiocese tended to function on automatic pilot. Hickey has made it clear that a firm hand is at the controls.

"I have been very, very impressed," said the Rev. John Scanlan , pastor of St. Peter's Church in Waldorf, Md. "He seems able to keep his finger on the pulse of the whole diocese . . . to be able to pull people together to share a common vision and philosophy much more rapidly than I ever thought possible. . . . We've been able to avoid the kind of power struggles in the Washington archdiocese that generally go with changes in leadership."

Church law makes every bishop, as the saying goes, "God in his own diocese." But while Hickey leaves no doubt that he makes the final decisions, he relies heavily for guidance on his cabinet of priests and lay men and women.

"He's very much a respecter of homework and of the opinions of other people," said Sister Margaret Culbert, who, as secretary for services for women and secular institutes, is a member of the cabinet, which he convenes weekly. "He's a very decisive man, and that encourages me very much, for even if the answer is 'no,' it's an informed decision." She calls his style "life-giving."

Last month he reactivated the archdiocesan pastoral council, an advisory body recommended by the Second Vatican Council nearly 20 years ago, explaining to the assembled group of clergy and laypersons that their function was "not administrative or legislative but advisory, and your advice I take very seriously." He set a monthly meeting schedule for the council for 1982.

Within weeks of his installation here in 1980, Hickey was thrust into the national political scene by the murder of four American women missionaries in El Salvador -- two of them nuns from Cleveland whom he personally had commissioned for service in that troubled country. Their deaths, he says, had a profound effect on him.

"Sister Dorothy Kazel would have been home safe, except that I asked her to stay another six months," he said. "When someone is killed doing something you've asked them to do, it makes the whole issue a lot more alive."

Since then, he has been the point man for the Roman Catholic Church nationally in consultations at the State Department and the White House, and in testimony before Congress, all aimed at persuading the United States to concentrate its influence and financial aid on working for a political rather than military solution to the turmoil in El Salvador.

Within months of his arrival here he launched Mount Carmel House, a shelter staffed by nuns for homeless women in the community. It was a project for which social justice groups in the archdiocese had been trying for more than a year to find space and financing. Hickey made it happen.

He turned unused facilities of a Capitol Hill parish into a spiritual retreat center, where persons can shut themselves away from the world for 24 hours to meditate and pray.

A little later, he brought to Anacostia a contingent of nuns trained by the famed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and discovered, to his dismay, that even saints are controversial.

Anacostians resented what they felt to be the equation of their community with the degredation of Calcutta; activists feared the emphasis on charity, symbolized by Mother Teresa, might eclipse the need for political activity to wipe out the causes of poverty; some black Catholics worried about the physical safety of the women. But the nuns stayed.

Hickey calls these spiritual enclaves, "my jewels . . . . I feel very good about my jewels because they are symbols of hope . . . and symbols act sometimes better than long sermons."

He exercised an important influence in the District in the November election by refusing to support a controversial educational tax credit proposal, which was widely viewed as a serious threat to public schools. Although he is the proprietor of the largest private school system in the area, Hickey has strong feelings about the public schools.

"I don't feel [Catholic schools] should ever be rivals of the public schools, but rather that we should work together as partners," he said during an interview last summer before the controversial educational tax credit issue had surfaced.

As part of Hickey's reorganization of the archdiocese, he bought and is renovating an unused seminary in a working-class neighborhood in Northeast Washington for a pastoral center, bringing together all the scattered archdiocesan offices. As soon as renovations are completed, he will live in a two-room apartment there, moving out of the luxurious University Heights house Baum bought for $210,000 five years ago.

In his tenure here, Hickey has celebrated masses for divorced Catholics, expanded the staff of the logjammed archdiocesan tribunal that processes petitions for church annulments of failed marriages and, after tangling with an unofficial group concerned with the problems of homosexual Catholics, announced his intention to start his own ministry to homosexuals.

He has increased the number of women in top leadership positions. Four of the dozen persons in his cabinet are women. He put a woman, Sister Mary Dempsey, in charge of renovations and development of the new pastoral center. He named Sister Anne Fulwiler, one of the the few women canon lawyers in the country, to the marriage tribunal.

Scanlan praised Hickey's willingness to learn from others. Describing a meeting of a social justice committee, Scanlan said: "He sat there andlistened to 20 or 30 people for three-quarters of the meeting, instead of coming in andtelling us what ought to be done."

This is a frequent comment regarding his style. Jay Cormier, one of several lay persons Hickey has added to his staff, said, "You can disagree with him."

"He's comfortable with hearing what people have to say," said Cormier, director of communication. "I have never been treated so much as a professional as I have since coming here."

Hickey himself is aware that the church is more than the administrative structure.

"The primary need is in the parish," he said. "That's where the people are. But you have to get your house in order. That's why I don't feel so bad that so much of this [first] year was taken up by planning."

High on Hickey's agenda for the future is finding ways of making Catholic beliefs come alive. As he put it: "How can we talk about the value of life in a positive way, in the total context of life?"

The church has taken a clear position on abortion and birth control, he said, "but the value of all life -- I think that's something we need to work on."

He is concerned about the increased calls for help the church is facing due to cutbacks of federal welfare programs.

"Our people are very, very generous," he said, " . . . but we need to sensitize them to the needs of fellow parishioners or of neighbors who may not be parishioners." To help make the point, he spent both Christmas and Thanksgiving helping serve holiday meals to the needy.

Important as he believes charity is, Hickey also sees a role for the church as an advocate for justice in society.

"In our society a person has the right to the kind of support systems needed for a decent human life," he said. "I don't feel it is the role of the church to be into politics. But I feel it is the role of the church to speak to issues. If people are starving, we can speak up and say that."

Hickey does not fit neatly into categories. On matters of faith, morals and doctrine, he is conservative; on issues of social justice, he usually is to be found among the growing number of progressives in the American hierarchy.

His relations with other religious bodies, both here and in Cleveland, have been cordial. In Cleveland, he drew sharp criticism from some of his own flock for joining Protestant and Jewish leaders in street demonstrations supporting court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance in schools.

He has cooperated fully here in the Christian-Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Conference. He readily assented to a proposal from Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker that the two men preach at each other's cathedrals later this year as a symbol of Christian unity. While Catholics and members of other faiths have spoken at the Washington Cathedral,no non-Catholic ever has occupied the pulpit at St. Matthew's Cathedral.

Gracious and at ease in social situations, Hickey nevertheless largely limits his socializing to those events where his presence is beneficial to the church. He has no hobbies, explaining: "I'm like my father, I guess; he had no hobbies in the conventional sense, but he loved to talk to people." He is a Shakespeare buff and enjoys an occasional evening at the Folger or at symphony concerts.

The prelate begins his days at 6 a.m. with a brisk walk and ends them at around 11 p.m. In between is a seemingly endless round of meetings, visits and appointments. Next to the television set in the comfortable solarium of his home is a video recorder, a Christmas gift a year ago from a parishioner.

"That's "the way we keep up with the newscasts," explained the Rev. Maurice Fox, Hickey's secretary, who always sounds a little breathless from trying to keep up with his boss.

Hickey logs most of his desk hours in the office that he has fitted out in the basement of his home, next to his private chapel, hung with photos of nuns and priests killed in El Salvador, and the bright and colorful primitive art produced by the peasants they served.

No, he replies to a question, burnout has never been a problem for him.

"I really enjoy my work," he says. "I enjoy what I'm doing. I haven't felt discouraged. I've never felt even close to being burned out."

One of the members of Hickey's cabinet is the Rev. Raymond Kemp, a man with a long history of community activism and not given to easy praise of the establishment -- any establishment. Kemp's evaluation of Hickey is: "I'm still waiting for him to make his first mistake."