Pope John Paul II concluded his week-long journey to America yesterday like a father leaving his family after a joyful reunion -- full of love, but wanting to make sure that his children knew exactly what he expected of them.

While the first papal tour of America was an unmistakable triumph, the pope's final messages before flying back to Rome -- on birth control, abortion, and the role of women in the church -- clearly gave pause to some Catholics who heard them.

The crowds that bade farewell to John Paul in Washington were far smaller than predicted.

Yet the thousands that did gather to see the pope as he drove about the city -- where the Catholic population is much smaller than in cities like Boston and Chicago -- reached to John Paul with the same excitement as the larger throngs who greeted him elsewhere.

By dawn yesterday, hundreds of students and families had gathered outside the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to see John Paul make his first stop of the day.

As the pope moved past them up the stairs of the enormous church, he reached out to touch their frantically waving hands, kiss their cheeks and gather bewildered children into his arms.

At the top of the staircase, he paused for a moment to address the crowd when suddenly two girls shouted out, "We love you."

John Paul bent to the microphone. "I love you, too," he replied. Before he could start once again to speak, the crowd was drowning him out with their shouts of: "We love you. We love you."

Inside the shrine, a group of 7,000 nuns waiting to hear the pope watched the scene on television screens, oohing and aahing their approval of every gesture, fully sensing the warmth and humor of the man.

But it was in the shrine that the pope came face to face with critics of his policies. Sister Theresa Kane, as she introduced him to the consecrated women of his church, made a measured and passionate plea for reconsideration of his stand against the ordination of women.

Instead of answering her directly, an evidently troubled John Paul spoke on the virtues of the Virgin Mary and the example of her "obedience to the divine will." He then read from a prepared text that emphasized the nuns' traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience "for the benefit of the church."

In the field house of Catholic University, not far from the shrine in Northeast Washington, John Paul addressed the leading Catholic academicians and intellectuals of the United States. He told them that the church hierarchy "desired to listen" to them. "We are eager," he said, "to receive the valued assistance of your responsible scholarship."

But at the same time that he lauded academic freedom, John Paul appeared to seek its limitation in the -- to the church -- crucial area of theology.

"It behooves the theologians to be free," he told the academicians. But he also said, "It is the right of the faithful not to be troubled by theories and hypotheses that they are not expert in judging or that are easily simplified or manipulated by public opinion for ends that are alien to the truth."

The bishops, and not the scholars, have the responsibility and authority to safeguard such truths, the pope suggested.

A few minutes later, John Paul warmly greeted leaders of the Protestant and Easter Orthodox churches in America, saying that all Christians are united in their love for Jesus and the scripture. He was received politely, but reserve won out over the exultation that he has met with elsewhere during the week.

Afterwards, some of the Protestants privately expressed grave concerns about the consequences of rigid Catholic orthodoxy on such issues as contraception and divorce.

As storm clouds gathered and chillwinds swept through the city, the emotional tenor of the pope's greetings seemed to seesaw between the exultation and somber attention.

As John Paul left the ecumenical meeting at Trinity College, he was greeted by a group of handicapped and desperately ill people who were specially brought there to see him.

Waving papal flags and singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," some saw him as their last or only sign of hope.

The parents of a child suffering from leukemia said afterwards they believed their little girl might be cured because John Paul embraced her.

"I feel almost as if I had shaked the hand of Christ," said an 85-year-old resident of a Washington nursing home. "It felt just that powerful."

Running almost two hours behind schedule, the pope returned to the palatial residence of the apostolic delegate for lunch and to meet with the members of the press who traveled through the United States with him.

Though some were cynical and others were critical of some of the things the pope said on his tour, it was clear as the reporters and photographers stood in a chill rain that many were personally taken by the power of the pope's charisma.

A woman reporter from the Detroit Polish Dally News was wearing and carrying 90 religious medals, hoping the pope would bless them for relatives and friends.

George Gelineau, from a newspaper in Lawrence, Mass., stood in the front of the crowd with a shaving kit full of rosaries. The pope blessed them all.

"You Americans," John Paul told the reporters as he left them, "you have supported me very well."

It was only an hour later, however, before the wind-chilled throngs on the Mall, that the pope finally chose to address at length one of the most emotional and divisive issues faced by the Catholic Church.

As he spoke out sternly and unequivocally against abortion during his homily, hundreds of people abruptly rose and walked away from him.

Most had surrendered to the weather, but a few others made it clear that they were protesting the content of his message.

Having girded itself for weeks in anticipation of the pope's visit, with expectations of unwieldly crowds ranging up to a million people, the city coped easily with the much smaller crowds that showed up. There were only four arrests, including three antinuclear protesters who tried to block his motorcade early in the morning, and all were for minor offenses. Traffic moved easily all day except for a brief surge to the Metro stops near the Mall after the mass.

The most-traveled pope in history seemed weary and ready to go home. Addressing the reporters at the Apostolic Delegation, he said, "Here we are together again at the end -- praise be to God -- of another journey."

He had swept through America like a fresh wind of faith and emotion, personally reaching out to millions in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Chicago and Washington, and millions more across the country on television.

John Paul tried, in essence, to talk to everyone about the issues that he believes are vital not only to the Catholic Church, but to the peace and well-being of mankind.

Having received the applause and love of a nation that shares so many of his grandest ideals, he left, as he had come, speaking of its founding principles.

"My final prayer is this," he said under the spotlights of the airport. "That God will bless America, so that she may increasingly become -- and truly be -- and long remain --

'One nation, under God, indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.'

"God bless America," he said. "God bless America."