Rebel French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre carried his defiance of Pope Paul to within two miles of the Vatican itself today, telling an audience of Italy's nobility that the Catholic Church has veered from its traditional faith, is bemused by ecumenism and is soft on communism.

"I don't want to die a Protestant," said Lefebvre, 71, at a press conference after speaking for 1 3/4 hours at the 17th century Pallavcini Palace. He was invited by Princess Elvina Pallavicini, whose family is related to Pope Clement IX (1667-69).

Last July, the Vatican suspended Lefebvre's priestly powers and on Saturday, the Pope's vicar, Cardinal Ugo Poletti, described the visit by Lefebvre to Rome as "provocative," intended to "cause disturbance at the apostolic see itself."

Lefebvre leads a Catholic movement that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that ended 12 years ago.

He wants restoration of the Mass in Latin rather than the vernacular as it was practiced before the Council reforms. Initially Lefebvre was to have offered Mass in Latin from the palace but several aristocratic envoys from the Vatican prevailed on Princess Pallavicini, a 63-year-old widow in a wheelchair, to call off the Mass. She decided on a reception and more than 1,000 aristocrats, diplomats and journalists responded to her invitation. The crowd punctuated Lefebvre's talk frequently with applause.

The silver-haired prelate denied any intention to defy the Pope. Calling communism "the most terrible sickness of our time," he accused some modern clergy of abetting the Communists. He praised anti-Communist East European cardinals as "the true heroes of the church."

Pope Paul has shown great reluctance to move against Lefebvre, despite pressure from the French and Swiss hierarchies to move decisively. He runs a traditionalist seminary in Econe, Switzerland.

The Pope is reluctant to use severe measures against left-wing or right-wing extremists because they would contrast with the church's acceptance of internal dialogue and its ecumentical links with other religious groups.

Moreover, he has admitted that mistakes have been made in the wake of the council, and he probably agrees with some of Lefebvre's criticism of excesses.

Despite the Pope's efforts to reach an understanding, Lefebvre's press conference made clear that he cannot accept any changes in the church - even though approved by the Pope and the bishops.

Lefebvre has announced that he intends to ordian 14 seminarians on June 29 at his seminary in Econe. The Pope must decide whether to excomunicate Lefebvre now or to wait until he consecrates another bishop, thus establishing a schismatic church.