Pope John Paul II yesterday faced the only public challenge of his week-long American trip -- from an assembly of nuns, who for centuries have been the most docile and obedient members of the church.
At a special prayer service for 7,000 nuns at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Sister Theresa Kane, a leader of American nuns, respectfully challenged the pontiff to open "all ministries of the church to women."
Her call for the church to ordain women as priests and deacons was backed by about 50 nuns wearing blue armbands. They stood in silent protest of the church policy as the pope began to speak.
The pontiff did not acknowledge either of the challenges. But he spoke at length on the Virgin Mary as the model for nuns, referring to her repeatedly as the "handmaiden of the Lord," before he began to read from his prepared text.
The nuns who gathered at the shrine for the first of the pope's early morning stops were as enthusiastic and devoted as many of the audiences on his week-long tour. They cheered and clambered up on the pews to see him and snap his picture as he entered. But a number of them wanted him to understand that while they loved him, they disagreed with his views on the proper role for women in the church.
The pontiff had said in an earlier address in Philadelphia that he supported the church's traditional bar to women priests.
Kane took her place at a lectern in the huge church, dressed in a tailored brown suit, with a blouse tied in a bow and a jeweled cross as a lapel pin. "In the name of women religious, I greet you," she began her introduction of the pontiff.
"It is appropriate that a woman's voice be heard in this shrine," which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, she said, and was interrupted by sustained applause. "I call upon Mary to develop what is in my heart and on my lips during this moment of greeting."
Kane, who was chosen to greet the pontiff because she heads the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as well as her own order, the Potomac-based Sisters of Mercy, followed the style the pope has used in addresses on sensitive issues. She praised him for certain statements, quoted them back to him, and then developed them further.
Commending his courage in defending the poor and oppressed around the world and his stand against "systemic injustice which needs to be corrected," she added: "As I share this privileged moment with you, Your Holiness, I urge you to be mindful of the intense suffering and pain which is part of the life of many women in the United States."
As the church struggles "to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons," she said, "it must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church."
Many of the nuns in the congregation greeted Kane's remarks with enthusiastic applause, but there were also many -- particularly older ones dressed in the habits of their orders -- who pointedly refrained from applauding.
When she finished her introduction, Kane knelt before the pontiff and kissed his ring in a gesture of obedience. He laid his hand on her head in a blessing.
Traditionalists among the nuns displayed their opposition to Kane's speech by applauding loudly when the the pope emphasized "poverty, chastity and obedience" as "the essence of religious consecration."
They also applauded the pope's strong suggestion that nuns should go back to wearing "suitable religious garb," a point he has made repeatedly in his year as head of the church.
Although many of the nuns who attended the service were wearing religious habits, it was difficult to tell if they were in the majority.
When it came to the pope's statements on the heart of religious life, prayer, devotion to the Eucharist and a Christ-like life style, both groups joined in applause.
At one point, however, the pope's call for the women to express "a greater public witness to the gospel" drew not only applause but caused one woman to join the standing protesters.
Afterwards, Sister Teresa Anderson of Bristow, Va., explained why she had stood: "I sincerely feel called to the priesthood, but I had thought it over and didn't want to do anything to take away from the Holy Father while he was speaking. But when he talked about 'public witness,' I had to stand up."
Officials of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious asked several weeks ago for an opportunity to meet with the pope during his visit here to discuss the status of women, but received no reply, Sister Lora Ann Quinonez, executive secretary of the organization, said yesterday.
She said they will try to meet with the pontiff next month in Rome in connection with a worldwide meeting of heads of womens' religious orders.
Even before the rest of the Roman Catholic Church had begun to digest the reforms of the Second Vatican Council 14 years ago, womens' religious orders had begun a process of modernization.
The result has been twofold. Sizable numbers left, concluding that religious life was not for them. But those who stayed developed a new solidarity and adapted new ways of serving a rapidly changing church and world.
In his address to the nuns, the pope seemed to turn back the clock on this renewal process, even in the type of work that nuns undertake.
He called them to "a faithfulness to original charisms [roles] which God has given to his church through your founders and foundresses." He singled out for praise the role of nuns in the church's parochial school system, a type of work that many contemporary nuns have abandoned for such tasks as social work and involvement with problems of social justice.
"The image of women which the Holy Father reflected this morning was very traditional," said Sister Quinonez after the shrine service. "I almost died -- in a service for women religious, that he would come in flanked by all those males," she added. The papal entourage for the processional of the morning service was exclusively males, except for Kane.
After the service, reaction to Kane's remarks ranged from dismay to enthusiastic approval. No one interviewed expressed surprise at anything the pope said.
While Kane was besieged by reporters as she left the shrine after the service, nuns in long habits approached other reporters to make sure they knew "she doesn't speak for us all." At the same time, Kane was being congratulated by other nuns.
"I said I don't speak for every woman," Kane said afterwards. "I am not challenging the pope's right to say what he wants to say. I merely hoped to offer a challenge to him to hear the suffering and pain of women."
As she spoke, a group of veiled nuns who teach school in Middleburg Va., hovered nearby.
"What she said is biased and inappropriate," said Sister Joan Marie.
"It disturbs me that she says we have all this pain and agony because we can't be priests," said Sister Mary Dennis. "I am perfectly happy. I don't want to be a priest, and I don't think women should be."
As snatches of discussion floated about the emptying plaza, another Middleburg nun looked around and said, "This debate here is a microcosm of the whole church."
There are more than 128,000 nuns in the United States, a number that has decreased over the last decade, a period in which nuns have increasingly demanded a more active role within and outside the church.
Less than 40 percent of the teachers at parochial schools today are nuns, a shift the pope hinted at in his remarks. Speaking of ways in which sisters "fulfill important needs of the people of God," he said that "a good example in this regard would be the Catholic school system."
Asked about John Paul's remark, Kane said she was "surprised" that the pope "singled out one ministry," and didn't mention hospitals and other institutions to which nuns have also devoted their lives.