Plans by the Roman Catholic Church to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the 20th century's Christian martyrs are being greeted with enthusiasm by local Catholics and non-Catholics.

"It's wonderful, because [King] definitely made a mark that goes beyond the man himself and that impacted all the issues of peace and justice," said Jacqueline Wilson, executive director of the Washington Archdiocese's Office of Black Catholics.

"Dr. King is an excellent choice," said the Rev. Darrell Macklin, pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church in Northeast Washington. Such "acts of recognition strengthen our understanding of what the universal church is."

King, who would have turned 71 Saturday, is among two dozen Americans whose names were forwarded to Rome by U.S. Catholic bishops last year to be recognized as martyrs.

The list is confidential, but at a news conference last May, a Vatican official confirmed that King's name was on it. The disclosure got little attention at the time, but his nomination has drawn more attention this holiday weekend marking his birthday. The Vatican is planning a special ceremony in May to honor Christian martyrs of the last century as part of its Jubilee Year 2000 celebrations, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Pope John Paul II wants the ceremony, to be held in the Colosseum in Rome, to be strongly ecumenical. Bishops around the world were asked for the names of those who should be considered as martyrs, and so far the Vatican has received about 10,000 nominations.

Walsh said the pope's initiative to recognize martyrs of the last century has meant a "completely new" definition of martyrdom.

"Obviously, there is martyrdom where someone says, 'Your faith or your head,' " she said, citing St. Thomas More, the Catholic chancellor beheaded by King Henry VIII in the 16th century.

"But there is also the martyrdom of people who maintain their religious principles in the face of opposition from the world around them, and this is the type of martyrdom we're talking about these days," Walsh said, citing as examples the four women, three of them nuns, who were slain in El Salvador in 1980.

The Rev. Terry Wingate, pastor of Purity Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, said he found the Vatican move fitting because "King is looked upon in the black community as a martyr who gave his life and all, that others might be free." And Catholics, he noted, "were some of the first to walk with Martin."

The recognition, said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, "shows the profound effect [King's] spirituality had on all people."

But R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, said his denomination does not see "theological significance" in the Vatican's move and believes martyrdom "should be reserved for those who die for the cause of the gospel itself."

Still, he added, "all Americans are indebted to Dr. King for his courageous stand on behalf of civil rights and . . . for the fact he was able to shift the consciousness of America on the race question."

Mohler, noting that King spoke in the seminary's chapel, said the school has a student fellowship named for the slain civil rights leader.

CAPTION: On April 4, 1968, aides to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood over his body on a Memphis motel balcony and pointed where the gunfire came from.

CAPTION: The Vatican is planning a ceremony in May in the Colosseum in Rome to honor Christian martyrs of the last century. Pope John Paul II, left, wants the ceremony to be strongly ecumenical.