The Rev. Kenneth Myers, a Cleveland native, stands rather stiffly as some of the younger orphans in the shelter he runs here shove each other for a chance to hug one of his legs. Wading through the children, he pats each one briefly, as though he did not wish daily that he had time to convince all of them that they are loved.

There are 180 orphans in this southern town from all over El Salvador, their parents killed in the continuing violence of civil war between insurgent leftists and a military-backed junta. Everywhere El Salvador's Roman Catholic Church is in the middle of things, running orphanages and refugee camps, food and medical dispensaries, an office to trace the dead, and other services that keep it close to the war. Some parts of the church also are close to the ruling junta members, and there are priests with the guerrillas in the mountains.

Some say the church here--and, they add, in all of Latin America--knows everything: if not through the confessional, then through spies. So it must mean something that the church is deeply divided on the causes and cures of the war.

Recently, however, the four-member hierarchy of bishops has muted its divisions in favor of a united cry of anguish over the rising level of human suffering. Protests against government human rights abuses are now joined with outrage over leftist violence. The effect has been to soften the church image as a strong critic of the government.

"The church is moving out of the political arena," said one European diplomat. "It is listening to Rome."

But the church acts on many levels. Priests such as the Rev. Myers, whether of the left, right or center interviewed during the past three weeks say their opinions of the problems here, their daily labor and their counsel to the people have not changed much during the past two years, despite very real shifts at the leadership level.

"We do what is necessary, no matter what the bishops say," said one activist priest. "How do you think the church has survived for 2,000 years?"

For generations in El Salvador, illiterate peasants were drafted into the Army, given guns and less than $10 a month, and were sent out to represent the authority of the state in hundreds of rural settlements. The only possible counterweight to their often brutal rule was the local parish priest.

"The church here has always been political, really by default of any other institution," said a scholarly Jesuit on the outs with the current government.

The priests split early into those who joined the armed forces and the landed gentry in ruling, those who fostered resistance, and the vast majority who tried to mediate between the rulers and the people. Civilian politics were often farcical--purchases of officialdom by the landed gentry. Even today there is massive skepticism that the March 28 elections will be any different.

It was a major victory for the government, therefore, when the Episcopal Conference of El Salvador in January endorsed the elections and urged people to participate. The key figure in that event, and in the church here now, is the acting archbishop of the San Salvador diocese, Arturo Rivera y Damas. He is not the archbishop here, but only the apostolic administrator, and that fact is said to weigh heavily on him.

Every Sunday, an expression of resignation on his face, Rivera delivers his homily under unlikely conditions. Television klieg lights glare in his eyes and reporters distract his parishioners. His words echo through the huge, peeling downtown cathedral, its unfinished and moldy cement walls sprouting rusty steel reinforcement rods.

The cathedral entrance is pocked with bullet holes and its 100-foot ceilings reverberate with the roar of trucks and buses outside. And looming over the scene on the bishop's left is the tomb and a 10-foot painting of Rivera's venerated predecessor, Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Romero was a hard act to follow. Shot dead two years ago this month, presumably by right-wing terrorists, as he said mass in a chapel across town, Romero had riveted the world with his impassioned attacks from the pulpit on government-condoned midnight massacres, as well as some more public military actions in which dozens died on the steps of his own cathedral. People are bringing plaques and flowers to start Romero on the road to sainthood.

"Thanks to Archbishop Romero for a miracle granted," reads one of a dozen notices crudely painted on a board. Another, identically worded, is delicately carved on a marble slab. Surrounding the tomb are wreaths of plastic flowers, dusty in the city soot.

But it is a different man in that pulpit now. "When Romero spoke, the world listened. When Rivera speaks, the world sleeps," lamented a friend of both men. Rivera is a sober-sided, intellectual liberal who was the leading advocate here during the 1970s of liberation theology, that revolutionary idea that put the church in the role of demanding economic and social reform to help the poor.

The church in those days set up "Christian Base Communities," cooperatives led by priests and nuns toward self-help; and the Christian Federation of Salvadoran Peasants, which began telling the astonished members their lot might be bettered in this life, too.

In 1977, Rivera was clearly in line for the San Salvador archbishopric, but to the establishment here he was a man who thought too much. The Vatican instead plucked from obscurity a conservative, reliable country cleric named Oscar Romero. And then, "the Holy Spirit worked its will," said a church official, smiling wryly.

When a priest was murdered that year, Romero began a political journey away from the government, backed by Rivera alone among the five bishops in El Salvador. Soon Romero left his mentor behind, and his fiery weekly homilies became the only major voice of protest against military and government abuses of human rights.

"Romero took that road without any fear that they would kill him," the church official said. "We don't all have that same ability or disposition."

Rivera has said privately that he does worry, the more since he knows that the other bishops, and most likely replacements for him, are far more conservative. "He's very clear in his mind, but he has to guard his rear," the official explained.

In contrast with Rivera is Archbishop Jose Eduardo Alvarez, 66, a middle-class bishop of eastern San Miguel Province, a guerrilla stronghold. He is chief of the bishops' Episcopal Conference, chaplain to the armed forces and a full colonel.

Some of his priests say he will not listen to criticism of the government. He flew in a small camouflage-painted plane recently to bless the troops at the anniversary celebration of the Atlacatl emergency response battalion, descending from the plane in full bishop's regalia.

He has said that leftists are "a cancer that must be removed from the body politic." He once told a church official that a priest tortured and killed in his parish in 1978 had been murdered "as a leftist, not as a priest." Relating this story, the official commented, "When the guerrillas win, they will judge Alvarez as a colonel, not as a bishop."

Following Alvarez's lead in most cases is Archbishop Marco Rene Revelo Contreras, 58, of the large Santa Ana diocese in the west. He rose from a poor background to aspire to be archbishop of San Salvador, but was passed over. Observers say Revelo is shrewd but has had sharp personality differences with the rest of the hierarchy.

That leaves Archbishop Pedro Arnoldo Aparicio, 74, whose San Vicente diocese is also a guerrilla stronghold, with many leftist priests. He likes to remind visitors that in 1971 he said in a speech that "horses and dogs are better treated and better fed" than El Salvador's poor. "To denounce these injustices," he said then, "is not communism; it is the command of Jesus."

Now, Aparicio said in an interview, the current government has changed things for the better. Agrarian reform, a new banking law and rent controls, he said, "have had a positive effect." But he acknowledged that human rights abuses continue, and said he has addressed the National Guard and National Police commanders in his area to insist that these abuses stop.

"Romero attacked from the pulpit, and I don't," he said. "I attack evil, not people. If I were to break with the authorities, I could not intercede with them on the side of the people." The high military command, he added, "cannot possibly stop everything."

Within the context of these colleagues, Rivera has recently balanced his attacks on security forces with sharp complaints about violence on the left. If he refuses to join the government's happy-family functions that delight Alvarez, he also refuses to minister to guerrillas.

Last May, Rivera went out of his way to note that the church's Legal Aid Office, which obtains and disseminates information about missing and murdered people, did not speak officially for the church. "We never were an official church voice," responded a Legal Aid attorney. "The other bishops demanded and then used that statment to try to bring us into disrepute." He said relations with Rivera remain excellent.

Conservatives, including U.S. Embassy officials, had criticized Legal Aid statistics for including only atrocities by the right and ignoring those by the left. "People abused by the guerrillas can complain to the armed forces, but people abused by the armed forces have nowhere to go but here," the attorney said. "No one has disproved our figures." The group says 13,353 people were killed for political reasons in 1981, another 466 in January and 91 last week.

Rivera has scorned the election as meaningless in a climate where leftist candidates cannot campaign, but he reversed himself in January and, with the rest of the bishops, said the vote "could be the beginning of a solution" to the conflict here.

When four American churchwomen were murdered here in December 1980, causing a major U.S. uproar, the government was prodded into action and finally five National Guardsmen were charged with murder. Rivera applauded that act with a touch of bitterness, noting that seven Salvadoran priests, including archbishop Romero, have been killed, and not one of those cases has been fully investigated, much less solved.

At the daily level, the priests say all the debates over blame and cure for the national trauma are very far away, lost in the work of helping people merely to survive.

The Rev. Myers, for example, has a life filled with the pleading eyes and tight hugs of the orphans. He must see that the schoolrooms have paper and chalk, that the kitchen has fuel, that the new washing machine can run nearly 24 hours a day. His worries are practical ones, and they do not change no matter who is archbishop. "I wish I had the time to follow all that," he said.