To be Catholic in 1979, in Washington, in St. Bernadette's parish was to come close to greatness. Pope John Paul II, for the first time, was visiting America. Washington was his first stop and St. Bernadette's in Silver Spring was the communication center for local information.

The middle-class parish off University Boulevard was portrayed then in three stories in The Washington Post as a red-brick bedrock of Catholic belief. Hundreds from the 1,400-family parish turned out for a giant papal mass on the Mall. Inspired by the pope's message of family and unity, St. Bernadette's "prolife" committee grew 15-fold; a parish task force on the family was formed; and one couple, Rena and John Damskey, even told an interviewer that the papal visit prompted them to decide to have another child, their fourth.

Eight years later, during Pope John Paul's second visit to America, a return visit by a reporter to St. Bernadette's shows that the enthusiasm of those who have no doubts about their church and its teaching still seems boundless.

But now there are also churchgoers, self-described "regular Catholics," who wage private, personal struggles over what they see as the increasingly conservative messages from the pope on such issues as the rights of women, the role of sexuality, and the question of how strictly Catholics must adhere to Vatican interpretation of church dogma.

Nearly a decade ago, St. Bernadette's was depicted as a microcosm of modern Catholic faith. Today, talking with the same parishioners, it is clear that the church and Pope John Paul II have both uplifted and disappointed the faithful.

For many, the years between the two papal visits have deepened their religious involvement. The Rev. Msgr. David Foley is now the Most Rev. David Foley, auxiliary bishop in Richmond. Bernard Bernier, a member of the all-male Holy Name Society who helped coordinate the parish's response to the 1979 papal visit, was ordained a deacon in 1983. Sally Murphy was president of the pro-life committee at the time of the pope's first visit and this year her husband took over the responsibilities.

For others, the times have been trying. Sarrah and Jim Willging, who headed the family task force, left the parish after 17 years and withdrew their children from parochial school last year. They've joined a neighboring parish and sent their children to public school. And Sarrah is attending theological class, she said, to "seek out the truths myself."

Rena and John Damskey remain at St. Bernadette's and their youngest, Amanda, who is now 7, attends the parish school that her older brothers and sister once did.

But Rena no longer goes to church regularly, she said, because of her frustration with the pope's views over women's involvement: "I really don't think he knows how women feel . . . . Until we have a pope with a uterus, women are going to be second-class citizens."

While the Catholic Church has experienced its share of turmoil and division over church doctrine, all the St. Bernadette's parishioners interviewed this week spoke about their faith in surprisingly conciliatory terms. All had thought deeply about their religion since Pope John Paul's first visit. None were extreme in their views. Some, like Bernier, a father of six, embrace church doctrine that forbids abortion and birth control, positions that many American Catholics find unacceptable.

Others like Rena Damskey, a mother of four, push for reform and devise a morality for themselves that they believe adheres to the teachings of the church, if not the rulings of the pope.

In separate interviews, Bernier and Damskey explained how they have matured in their religious beliefs. To label either as conservative or liberal would be unfair as well as inaccurate. Perhaps more striking than their differences is their common ground: Both consider themselves good Catholics.

There is nothing about Rena Damskey -- from her simple hairstyle to her plain blue skirt to her quiet, thin voice -- that is meant to shock.

But as she speaks, the 41-year-old nursery school teacher wonders how her words will be received by other members of her church. She doesn't usually talk about these things with other Catholics.

"Women are really victims of the pope. We're treated as second class. Many issues aren't black and white. I think abortion is wrong and divorce is wrong, but not all the time. I don't think the pope sees that," she said.

Eight years ago, John Paul II preached about family and the need for unity. The past few years have done nothing to shake her faith in God or herself, she said. But she increasingly feels estranged from the church leader who once was a reason for hope, but who now disappoints her with his position that American Catholics must adhere rigidly to the word of the Vatican.

"Eight years ago what he said put a stamp of approval on the family. He kind of said, 'Everything you're doing, you're doing right.' But issues raised by American Catholics over the years have made me think . . . .

"I see myself as a very religious person. When I was growing up, I think we accepted the church's teaching because we were told to. My children have been raised to believe anything they want -- as long as they understand why they believe. I believe in the word of God before the word of the pope. And I don't believe that is one and the same.

"Does that make me any less Catholic? Probably. In the eyes of the church. But not in the eyes of God."

For Damskey and her family, Catholicism has become something that requires daily commitment and thought, she said. She would like to see women ordained. She would like the pope to accept everybody's sexual identity. She does not believe birth control is right.

"The basic Catholic teaching of God is true. That's it. The pope's interpretation just gets in the way . . . . I would like the Church to teach men from the cradle of the dignity and worth of women and mothers. I would like to see a woman who only has been a wife and mother be canonized . . . . Even at church, we pray for 'us men' and for 'the salvation of men.' I refuse to say that prayer."

Her youngest child wasn't born simply because "the pope told me to have her," Damskey said with a smile about the publicity she and her family received after a newspaper article included the story of Amanda's conception. Rather, the decision was made because "that's we're about, John and I, raising good citizens. That's what we do best. So we decided.

"I feel my kids will always be Catholic. Whether they go to church or not, I don't know. But I'll always know -- and will want to know -- what they believe in."

Would one of her children ever become a nun or priest? "I'd be delighted if one of my children would be a nun. Especially if she believes like I believe. Then we'd have an insider."

Bernie Bernier, a white-haired, burly assistant division chief at the Library of Congress, has been a member of St. Bernadette's parish since 1958. In all those years, he's never doubted that the Catholic church was his spiritual home. The pope's visit then and now, he says, merely supported his faith.

"Do you remember the day Kennedy was shot? I do. That's what it was like the day the pope came {in 1979}. You remembered where you stood in line, who was next to you, how hot it was . . . . It didn't change things for me. What was already in place probably intensified."

Bernier said his faith has grown steadily in the years since the pope's visit. Becoming a deacon in 1983 was just part of an evolution, he said. Disagreeing with Catholics who aren't following the tenets of the faith is part of his responsibility. He smiles wryly when asked to reflect on differences within his own family of six children, ages 10 to 27.

"St. Bernadette's has original Catholics {from the parish's 1944 founding} who have children, and those children have had children, so there are three different schools of thought," he said. "The older ones, my age, are conservatives. The younger ones are more middle of the road; they used to be liberal and now are coming back. The youngest ones are sort of a blend of the two.

"Diversity is what makes us interesting . . . but I'm talking about diversity that adheres to the magisterial quality of the church. People might have some questions, but the pope must remain the central figure of the church . . . . When he says he's not ordaining women, when he doesn't find abortion good in any circumstances, he represents the teaching authority of the church and he is to be obeyed."

The Bernier family is steeped in Catholic doctrine. The children were educated in parish school and the parents are strict believers in following the teaching to the word. None of the children has ever crossed the church's teachings, Bernier said. But there are times that he, like all parents, can worry.

"When the pope comes out with a statement . . . the older ones who are college educated and who have been out on their own might ask: Is he right? The younger ones tend to listen and learn from how we react.

"What would I do if one of my kids left the church?" He shakes his head. "It happens all the time. It would make me very sad. But it would also open up a whole new avenue of dialogue . . . .

"That's when you have to embrace a person and try to work through it. That is when a parent has to muster all the compassion you can . . . . I'd have to say, 'What can I do as a parent to help you?' That's the real test for a parent."