Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey has been chosen to lead the annual retreat of Pope John Paul II and other Vatican officials in Rome this month, becoming the first U.S. Catholic ever to conduct the event, church officials here said yesterday.

Hickey, head of the Washington Archdiocese, is slated to give a series of talks on Mary when the five-day retreat convenes in the Vatican's Matilda Chapel Feb. 21, the first Sunday of Lent. The retreat traditionally is a time of prayer and reflection for the pope and members of the Vatican hierarchy.

A spokeswoman for the local archdiocese said church officials here do not know how Hickey came to be chosen to conduct the retreat. In recent years, the event has been led by Father Peter Hans Colvenbach, superior general of the Society of Jesus in Belgium. Pope John Paul conducted the retreat in 1976 when he was cardinal archbishop of Crakow, Poland.

"No one really knows. I'm sure that just after a great deal of thought and prayer, this was what was decided on," said spokeswoman Eileen Marx. "It is a way of showing a great deal of affection for the American church, which the Holy Father visited so recently . . . . It's great for the church here in the United States."

On a nine-day tour of U.S. cities last year, the pope was confronted with sharp divisions among parishoners over the Vatican's policies on such sensitive issues as the role of women in the church and homosexuality. The pope last visited Washington in 1979.

Marx said the selection of Hickey to lead this year's retreat might be explained in part by the archbishop's "special devotion" to Mary and by the fact that Mary is the patroness of the Washington archdiocese.

Hickey has not commented on the selection publicly and has been busy preparing his series of talks for the retreat, which is to focus on the role of Mary in Catholic life.

"I would assume that it would be just a wonderful honor to be chosen by the pope to give his retreat," Marx said. "The archbishop is really quite a humble person. So I think this is something he has really been touched by."

Among the 30 to 35 Vatican officials expected to attend the retreat are the pope's personal aides and members of a sort of papal cabinet that oversees church operations and Catholic doctrine worldwide. The retreat centers on the talks to be delivered this year by Hickey, and on prayers and daily mass.

Marian years such as the one that continues through August are designated by the pope in an attempt to foster deeper devotion to the mother of Jesus. The last marian year was observed in 1954.