It was a moment that captured the metamorphosis of a long-serving church apparatchik into the 56th Roman Catholic primate of Poland, the nation's spiritual leader.

Jozef Glemp, newly appointed successor to the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had just arrived in Gniezno, seat of Polish archbishops since the year 1000. A small, unremarkable figure with twinkling eyes and protruding ears, he stepped out of a battered black Peugeot to assume the primate's office that is traditionally vested in the See of Gniezno.

For a few seconds, he stood on the steps of the archbishop's palace chatting to fellow priests and bishops. Then suddenly as though from nowhere, a crowd of Poles materialized. There were loud shouts of "long live the primate of Poland," ripples of applause and arms carrying babies thrust forward for him to kiss. In the middle of the sidewalk, the crowd got down on its knees to receive the new primate's blessing.

At first Glemp looked slightly uneasy. But as more and more babies were pushed into his arms, he grasped what was expected of him and even seemed to enjoy the occasion. He posed for photographs in the chadow of the ancient cathedral built by Boleslaw the Brave, Poland's first king.

The office of Polish primate has few parallels anywehere else in the world. He is the head of the Catholic Church in a country where 90 percent of the population are practicing believers. But he is also looked upon as a national leader and the symbol of a 1,000-year-old tradition intact through 36 years of communist rule.

For 33 years, until his death May 28, this role was filled by Wyszynski, who became identified in the public mind with the defense of historic Polish values form the encroachment of the state. This month it was thrust upon Glemp, a 52-year-old expert in canon and civil law who worked for 12 years as Wyszynski's private secretary and more recently as bishop of the diocese of Warmia.

The appointment means that Glemp, who was little known even in Poland, now becomes one of the major actors in the Polish drama along with the leader of the independent Solidarity trade union, Lech Walesa, and the Communist Party chief, Stanislaw Kania. Inevitably his attitudes and approach to his office will have a major influence on developments in Poland.

Last week he traveled to Rome for the first time since he became primate for talks with Polish-born Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials. And in meetings with Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski, he has given a clear signal of his intent to play a mediating role in government-Solidarity relations.

In an interview shortly after his arrival in Gniezno, he indicated that he is well aware of the political significance of his office. He commented: "Ever since the Middle Ages, the primate of Poland has had a national political role in addition to his strictly religious role. Maybe this will change one day, but that's the way it is at present."

Glemp recalled that in earlier times it was customary for the primate to become interrex -- or regent -- following the death of a king. Similarly, he said, during political crises in the postwar years, many Poles had looked upon Wyszynski as a kind of de facto interrex.

Asked if he felt ready for such a role, he replied firmly: "No, no, not yet. I am counting upon a collegial style of leadership for the church."

The archbishop made clear that he intended to follow broadly the same policies set by Wyszynski. He expressed support for Solidarity, but said it was the church's task to calm emotions in a tense situation. He said he was prepared, like his predecessor, to act as a trusted intermediary between Solidarity and the communist authorities, "should the situation demand it from me."

He said church-state relations had improved enormously since the persecutions of the early 1950s when Wyszynski was put under detention. "We realize we can't quarrel all the time. The church must help society, and the government now understands that we're not the enemy. The way they look at us is very different from 30 years ago. Ideologically, we'll never agree since we're at opposite ends of the spectrum. But today there is room for pluralism in Poland and, within this pluralism, we can coexist peacefully."

In addition to being archbishop of Gniezno, Glemp will take over Wyszynski's other functions as archbishop of Warsaw and chairman of the Polish episcopate. He is also likely to be named a cardinal soon.

While his permanent residence will be in Warsaw, his ecclesiastical authority will derive from Gniezno. Today the city of 60,000 in western Poland is dominated by the cathedral and bishop's palace. Its glory lies in its past as the first Polish capital and the legendary nest of the white eagle, the national emblem.

Efforts were made to restore some street facades before the pope's visit in 1979, but it still retains a rather dilapidated appearance.

Despite initial surprise, Polish Catholics now express pleasure at Glemp's appointment. He is regarded as a practical man rather than an intellectual, an all-rounder who understands the nuts and bolts of church-state relations. Friends say he is prepared to be flixible in negotiations but also is capable of standing very firm on matters of principle.

A leading Catholic journalist commented: "He is like Wyszynski 30 years younger. When Wysynski took over in 1948, nobody had heard of him either, but he established himself within a few months and molded the church in his image. Glemp will do the same."

Glemp's appointment also means that a new generation is taking over the Polish church. He has described himself as belonging to "a generation without a voice" because of the preculiar circumstances of its unbringing. He and his contemporaries reached adolescence during World War II when Poland was under Nazi occupation. After the war, their opinions and strivings were suppressed during the early period of monolithic communist rule.

In an interview with the church weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, Glemp recalled being sent as a young boy by German troops to work in the field following the closure of all Polish schools. His family was expelled form its home and his father assigned to a salt mine.

"Even today I am moved when I see people pulling sugarbeets from the fields. This work is done on your knees," he said.

Glemp said his own experience taught him two things: the meaning of exploitation and the defenselessness of workers unable to join together in an honest labor association. This also explains his emotional sympathy for Solidarity, which he does not hide in conversations.

After the war, Glemp worked to make up for the years of lost schooling. Like many other Poles, he discovered ways of learning between the lines of the official new communist textbooks.

In 1958, Glemp was sent by the church to study in Rome. This marked him out for a career in the in the church bureaucracy and, soon after his return in 1964, he was called to the primate's secretariat in Warsaw. Khe was appointed bishop in Warmia, with a seat at Olsztyn, in 1979.

Looking to the future, Glemp draws attention to Wyszynski's last testament, which said the late primate did not want to impose any restrictions on his successor. The new leader of the Polish church would have to interpret the signs of the times for himself and to rule the church according to the faith.

Asked about the outcome of the Polish crisis, Glemp replied: "I am not a prophet, but I believe in the common sense of the nation. Whatever else happens, there is a tremendous will for peace to prevail."