Pope John Paul II began an historic four-day visit to France today by calling its often turbulent Catholic Church to order and putting the clergy on notice that the constancy of the church, and not the changing outside world, defines their role.

Although he said in advance that he was coming to France to understand and not "to sit in judgment," John Paul began by issuing to clergymen what was viewed as a warning against the broad currents in the French church that advocate radical adjustment -- some going so far as to include worker priests joining the Community Party.

"It is not the world that sets our role, our status, our identity," the pope told assembled priests at an outdoor mass in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

The pontiff's visit is the first by a pope since Pius VII officiated at Napoleon's coronation in 1804. John Paul arrived an hour late because his Alitalia air bus blew a tire before take off from Rome. He was greeted by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing near the statue of World War I premier George Clemenceau, a French national hero steeped in atheism and anticlericalism.

Inside France's most prestigious cathedral, the pope preached on the theme of Christ's question to St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome, "Do you love me?"

It was a question many Roman popes have undoubtedly asked about a national church in this country that practically invented modern anticlericalism with the French Revolution.

Currently, the most widely publicized French Catholic conflict with Rome is from the right rather than the left. Traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre insists on a return to the exclusive use of Latin in the church liturgy. One of the leading Paris churches has been illegally occupied for three years by traditionalists who refuse to bow to the cardinal who is Archbishop of Paris.

Apparently addressing challengers from both ends of the religious spectrum, the pope called for "responsible and voluntary obedience to your bishop." Without it, he said, "You cannot build the church of God."

Several days before arrival here, the pope politely referred to the troubles of the French church as "a crisis of growth." In fact, it is calculated that only 6.5 million of France's 40 million adult Catholics go to church regularly, half the number who attended Sunday mass 20 years ago.

Only about 100 new priests are ordained yearly, far fewer than the number who die. At the present rate of attrition, France's 36,000 priests would be reduced to 10,000 by 1995.

This trip by the Polish pope, his sixth since the start of his pontificate in late 1978, probably has the most potential to be explosive.

Opinion polls show that most of the French faithful admire John Paul's strongly reaffirmed opposition to divorce, abortion, contraception, married priests and abandonment of priestly garb. But advocates of innovation are legion among France's priests and the militants of lay Catholic organizations -- staring with the dynamic Catholic Worker Action organization. It has seven Communists on its 37-member governing board.

John Paul is meeting the problem of relations with the Communist Party head on.One of the 23 sermons and speeches he has scheduled is Saturday evening's at the Basilica of St. Denis, the resting place of most French kings but also a bastion of Communist rule in the red belt of worker suburbs that rings Paris.

Only a few years ago, such a foray would have been denounced by the Communists as a deliberate provocation. But the party leadership has been invited to attend a large number of papal appearances and has accepted. This contrasts with the attitude of the Socialist Party, which has left acceptance of papal invitations to individual conscience.

The Communist newspaper l'Humanite accepted the French bishops' appeal to the press for free advertising to urge people to attend outdoor mass Sunday at Le Bourget Airport. The church has been saying it hopes a million people will attend. But the relatively low number of bus and train reservations from the provinces indicates far fewer may be there.

Today, crowds around Paris were far smaller than anticipated. A generous police estimate put the crowd at 100,000 around the Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elysees, where the pope arrived by helicopter from the airport.

Giscard and John Paul stood in an Army command car, repainted white for the occasion, as they reviewed the honor guard.

Giscard and the pope exchanged speeches in front of the Egyptian obelisk of the Place de la Concorde, the site of the guillotine where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads.

At Notre Dame, the pope spoke of his "respect for those who do not share the same ideals," apparently meaning Marxists and of his "esteem and admiration" for other faiths, including "other Christian confessions, the Jewish community and the Islamic religion." He is scheduled to hold private audiences with the leaders of other major religious groups in France.

The pope then went to the City Hall to be greeted by Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris and the leader of the Gaullist Party. Later John Paul took one of the tour boats that ply the Seine, arriving at the residence of the papal nuncio to spend the night.