Hispanic Catholics in the District, upset about the pending transfer of a popular local priest back to his homeland of El Salvador, have launched a grass-roots lobbying effort to persuade the Washington Archdiocese to reverse its decision.

The Hispanics are distressed about losing the Rev. Vidal Rivas, who has attracted hundreds of Salvadorans to St. Gabriel's Church in Northwest Washington since his arrival three years ago. They also say they are angry that they were not consulted about his transfer and that letters of protest to the archdiocese were not answered.

"We think it's unfair . . . because the rules of the church say that the community has to be consulted before a priest is changed," said Vladimir Monge, 32, a congregant at St. Gabriel's. "People really love him and want him as pastor. The archdiocese is not responding to this."

As part of their lobbying effort, Hispanics from six area parishes will hold a prayer vigil tonight outside the archdiocese's offices in Hyattsville. Parishioners at St. Gabriel's also have asked community leaders to write to the archdiocese.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, head of the archdiocese, said a shortage of Spanish-speaking priests makes arrangements such as Rivas's necessary. Rivas is on loan to Washington from his diocese in El Salvador.

"Fellas come and go, and there's an ordinary rotation of priests for a certain amount of time. . . . It's always understood that they go back," McCarrick said. "Our folks have to realize that until we get the vocations from our people . . . we're always going to be in a bit of a bind because we are going to have to borrow priests from outside."

Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said Rivas's transfer was routine, adding that "priests serve at the wish of the bishop, [and] they take a vow of obedience." Rivas, who is to leave Sept. 15, will be replaced by a Spanish-speaking priest, and another priest from El Salvador will arrive to work in the archdiocese, Gibbs added.

Rivas did not respond to a message left at his parish.

He has been active in the community beyond his parish, galvanizing relief efforts for survivors of the recent earthquakes in El Salvador and assisting the immigrant community with social and political problems. Since his arrival, the number of Salvadorans worshiping at St. Gabriel's has risen from a handful to 400, church members said.

"Words are not enough to describe the feeling of discomfort that has taken our hearts," they wrote McCarrick on July 18.

Monge, a restaurant worker from El Salvador, said Rivas "differs from other priests. . . . He's telling people, 'You've got to take responsibility for issues in the community.' . . . And now that this movement has been generated, people are saying: 'Hey, I've got something to say. I want my voice to be heard.' "

Among those who have written to the archdiocese urging reconsideration of Rivas's transfer are D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1); Juan Romagoza, executive director of La Clinica del Pueblo Inc.; and Jean Stokan, director of the Washington office of SHARE Foundation.

McCarrick has made a top priority of ministering to Hispanics, who make up about one-third of the archdiocese's 510,000 Catholics. He said he regretted that he would be out of town tonight on a previously planned trip.

"Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to attend the vigil," he said.