Polish radio reporters have been instructed not to reveal just how large the crowds are that have turned out to greet Pope John Paul II on his return pilgrimage to his homeland.

Whether it is a million people who turn up, as in Warsaw, or 1.5 million, as here in Katowice, as far as official radio and television is concerned, it is "a many thousand strong crowd."

This is just one of many examples of the tight censorship, which has throttled coverage of the papal visit by Poland's official news media. Most newspapers, even those with correspondents following the pope around Poland, are obliged to rely on the officially sanctioned reports of the Polish news agency PAP for the bulk of their coverage.

Commentaries and editorials stick closely to the official line, emphasizing the pope's calls for world peace and his meetings with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and other Polish leaders.

Television coverage has been much more extensive than during the pope's last visit here in June 1979, but just as heavily censored. During live broadcasts from open-air masses, Polish television cameras have managed the difficult feat of avoiding the many pro-Solidarity banners in the crowd or, except for one brief lapse in Czestochowa, the sight of hundreds of thousands of people raising their arms in defiant V-for-victory signs.

Broadcasts are invariably interrupted before the patriotic church anthem "Oh God Who Protects Poland," which ends with the phrase: "Restore to us a free homeland."

Last Friday, the Polish press treated the elevation of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to the post of president as the principal news event of the day--and relegated the pope's arrival in Poland to second place.

While the Polish press scarcely has touched the controversy of whether or not Lech Walesa would get to meet the pope, this has been the major preoccupation of the western press. All the major American networks have assigned special television crews to track the former Solidarity leader's movements in his hometown of Gdansk.

Today, police stopped a driver carrying videotapes of Walesa for three American networks and a British one as he left Gdansk for Warsaw, and confiscated all the tapes.

At last count, there were 321 American reporters here among the more than 1,000 foreign journalists accredited to cover the pope. This makes the U.S. contingent easily the largest, followed by France with 87 journalists. According to the Foreign Ministry, about 50 visa applications were denied for "venomous and tendentious" reporting.

The press corps following the pope must be one of the strangest collections of reporters ever assembled. It ranges from long-time Vaticanisti, or professional pope-watchers, to a solitary correspondent for the Soviet news agency Tass. Official Polish newspapers have assigned a couple of reporters each to the visit, but their coverage is limited to picking up the officially sanctioned reports of the Polish news agency.

The most remarkable press contingent is made up of journalists representing Poland's independent Catholic press. The Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny has more than 20 reporters, including at least one former political internee. Other church publications are represented by journalists fired from official newspapers after the imposition of martial law.

There is a rumor going around among the foreign journalists here that Poland's Communist authorities agreed to the pope's visit on the assumption that the income generated would help to repay the country's huge debt to the West. While this was hardly the reason that the government permitted the visit, it does illustrate that Marxists can be just as unscrupulous as capitalists when they have a monopoly position to exploit.

The foreign journalists are all being looked after by a government agency called Interpress. Interpress provides them with hotel accommodations, interpreters, telex and telephone facilities, even a helicopter if they insist.

In return, the journalists are being made to pay through the nose.

The biggest sums, naturally enough, are being forked out by the American television networks, which each have at least half a dozen crews following the pope. The price of a small room at the Polish television studios is $600 a day.

The rate for hotel rooms has been raised for the duration of the pope's visit to $150 for a double room at the Intercontinental in Warsaw and $45 for a single room in a lowly youth hostel; a car with chauffeur can be hired for a cool $230 a day while helicopters work out at a minimum of $1,350 for three hours. Just to move around freely within the press centers set up around Poland costs $180 per person.

Interpress has given every journalist a free blue canvas bag marked "Press Center." It comes complete with a ballpoint pen, a large bundle of government propaganda, and a smaller bundle of church propaganda. But the most useful item may turn out to be the free plastic raincoat. Ever since the pope arrived, the weather here has been cold and blustery.

Emil Pyrich, an Interpress official responsible for accreditations, denies that Poland is trying to make money out of the papal visit. He says that Interpress is hardly covering its own costs since it had to hire another 500 staffers for the six press centers along the pope's complex itinerary.

This argument, however, ignores the fact that Interpress pays for most of its services in Polish zlotys while getting paid in U.S. dollars by foreign journalists. On the black market the dollar trades against the zloty for as much as six times its official value.