Roman Catholic Archbishop John R. Quinn exchanged views on the future of religious life in this country with more than 700 leaders of religious orders for women in an emotional closed-door session here yesterday.

In a brief press conference afterward, Quinn characterized the three-hour session with members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as "beneficial and worthwhile." Sister Helen Flaherty, LCWR president, termed it "very honest and open."

Another LCWR spokewoman, Sister Mary Louise Lynch, put it somewhat differently as she came out of the session at the Civic Center. "They're mad as hell," she said of the nuns participating in the meeting.

Quinn, archbishop of San Francisco, was invited to meet with the women because he heads a Vatican commission directed in June by the pope to study the status of religious orders for men and women in this country.

The tenor of the Vatican directive, with its call for a return to "religious garb," to communal living, and to more traditional roles and tasks, led many church women to fear that the last 20 years of reforms in religious orders were in jeopardy.

Quinn began with a speech, copies of which were made available to reporters, in which he praised the contributions of nuns to both church and society.

Religious women, he said, "have lived lives of frugality and prayer and persistent service to others even at enormous personal cost . . . . "

"For many persons whose religious gifts developed at an early age," Quinn said, "the most influential persons in their lives were those women religious whose insightful goodness and care touched their lives more formatively than either was aware of."

He said he interpreted the Vatican-ordered study, which affects only the American church, as a means of getting American bishops "to support and to second the genuinely heroic efforts of the religious women and men to renew their communities."

Quinn concluded with an appeal for "communication" at all levels in the church. In the question period that followed, women formed long lines at half a dozen floor microphones to ask questions or to comment.

"It was the most inspiring thing I ever saw," said Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag, of the Woodstock Center in Washington. "I have never seen so many articulate women."

Flaherty said that she "did not hear one woman come up that was brittle, negative or with a chip on the shoulder. There were concerns . . . but I hope and trust that the results will be positive."

Frequent bursts of applause could be heard for many of the women's comments. Perhaps the loudest applause went to Sister Theresa Kane, head of the Sisters of Mercy and a past president of the LCWR.

In response to Quinn's appeal for better communication between bishops and nuns, Kane reportedly reminded Quinn that LCWR had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get the attention of the bishops. Kane also recalled her fruitless efforts to open communication with the Vatican on expanding the role of women in the church.

Quinn told reporters one concern expressed yesterday was that the Vatican directive on the elements of religious life, set forth as a guideline for the bishops' study, "not be interpreted blindly . . . that the committee take into consideration the lived experience of American women religious."