Sarita Hudson has worked with homeless women, Mexican farm workers and Salvadoran refugees. She says that had she been a man, she would be a priest today. But as a woman, she said, she finds little identity in the traditional Roman Catholic Church.

Rev. Cletus Wessels, a Catholic priest who taught human sexuality at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he is fed up with the fear among his colleagues that their modern views might be censured by the Vatican.

While many of the nation's 52.7 million Catholics eagerly are preparing for the Pope John Paul II tour beginning today, Hudson and Wessels are working out of a tiny Mount Rainier apartment, coordinating a series of meetings across the country with discontented members of the church. They are hoping that sentiments expressed at those meetings will show the pope that he has failed to give U.S. Catholics the guidance they need to cope with the peculiarities of modern culture and a democratic society.

The two head up Catholics Speak Out, a fledgling nationwide project initiated by the 12-year-old Quixote Center for peace and justice. Though not officially recognized by the Catholic Church, the Prince George's-based center seeks changes in the church to make it more responsive to members' interests.

It sponsors public rallies and conducts studies examining how American Catholics feel about controversial issues such as laity in the church, church economics, the role of women, human sexuality, power and authority and patriarchal structure.

"A continuing dialogue among all sections of the community is needed to make the religious experience richer," Wessels said. "The pope needs to listen to the voices of the people. Whose church is it, anyway?"

The talks are a result of what Wessels and Hudson said is a lack of communication between church leaders and American Catholics.

"We have sent {the pope} 4,000 letters asking him to reduce the number or length of his talks by half and spend at least half of his time in each city listening to the voices of the Catholic people," Wessels said. "He didn't respond. Now we plan to hold our own talks, compile a report and send it to him."

Locally, forums will be held Sept. 13 at the Washington Theological Union in Silver Spring, and on Sept. 17 at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center in Columbia.

But a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Carl Eifert, said, "The pope will be carefully listening to laity and clergy chosen by various Catholic groups through structured dialogue. One reason for that is that English is only his fourth or fifth language and he needs to prepare his responses adequately."

Catholics Speak Out was organized in the District of Columbia in November to hold a protest in support of Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who was stripped of some of his authority by the Vatican for straying from the church's views on human sexuality. The group has also held rallies and conducted letter-writing campaigns on behalf of the Rev. Charles Curran, suspended from teaching at Catholic University because he dissented on views of sexual morality held by the Vatican. And in January it supported the Revs. Dexter Lanctot and Thomas McGann, who were suspended from their priestly duties for participating in a demonstration against U.S. nuclear policy that led to their arrest.

The organization includes 500 members locally and 5,000 members nationwide, recruited mostly at the rallies and also through ads in Catholic publications, according to Wessels.

Group members pay $10 to join, but some choose to contribute more. The group's current operating budget is $70,000, Hudson said.

Some members said they are attracted to the group because it is heartening to know that other Catholics also want changes in church "Jesus talked about change."

-- Mercie Hardie-Coogan

doctrine and they believe their concerns will more likely attract the hierarchy's attention if expressed by large groups of church members. They also point to actions such as those taken against Hunthausen and Curran to explain why they see safety in expressing their discontent through an organization.

Mercie Hardie-Coogan, a member who lives in College Park, said she joined so she could share a Christian identity with diverse people, rather than an external uniformity.

"Staunch beliefs and dogma were not always tenets of Christianity. Jesus talked about change," Coogan said.

Member Elinor Crocket, vice president of Dignity, a national organization of gay and lesbian Catholics, said she believes the organization is valuable in helping Catholics learn about others' stands against the church. "I wanted to try to help other people reconcile their church and sexuality before they are driven away," she said.

But Rev. Robert Mohan, a philosophy professor at Catholic University, warned against mixing moral issues with church policy. He said church tenets should not change.

"Prevalence does not constitute justice," Mohan said.

"You either accept the claims of the church or you don't . . . . In another age those people would have left the church. Now they are trying to form a church based on representative democracy, on their own views."