In an apparent response to the American nun who Sunday challenged church restrictions on ordaining women, Pope John Paul II yesterday called on Roman Catholic nuns to be obedient to him.

"Follow the voice of the vicar of Christ [the Pope] with holiness and courage," the pontiff told a group of 600 Italian mothers superior. "In this way no sister will feel depressed or alienated, even if in some sense she has erred."

The Italian mothers superior were part of a crowd of thousands who gathered in St. Peter's Square for the first general audience since the pope's return from his trip through Ireland and the United States.

The only challenge to the traditionalist church policies he enunciated on his American trip came on the last day at a service for nuns gathered at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

In introducing him, Sister Theresa Kane, who heads the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, urged the pontiff to "be mindful of the intense suffering and pain which is part of the life of many women in the United States."

If the church would pursue "its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons," she continued, it "must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church."

The pontiff made no acknowledgement of her remarks at the time. Churchmen familiar with the acoustics of the shrine said that the pope, who was sitting well behind her when she spoke, probably could not hear her words.

In his audience yesterday, the pope said: "I would like to suggest to you, superiors, the firmness and delicacy necessary in this moment. Show yourselves above all to be sensible and illuminated mothers and never irritated or embittered about anything."

Kane is administrator general -- equivalent to the older term of mother superior -- or her order, the Sisters of Mercy of the Union. A spokeswoman at the order's headquarters in Potomac said that Kane has declined to take calls from reporters since the Sunday incident at the Shrine because "she doesn't want to become a media event."

The pontiff returned to the Vatican yesterday from the papal retreat of Castel Gandolfo, where he spent two days resting up from his grueling tour. Earlier in the day he celebrated mass for the Vatican Council of the Laity at the conclusion of a week of debate on various topics, including the role of women in the church.

The pontiff told the council in his homily that "women must find exactly the role that is assigned to them in the church and benefit [the church] with all their resources of faith and charity."

Early next month, the pope will hold a special meeting with the church's 130 cardinals. The agenda has not been disclosed.