Up a flight of worn wooden stairs on Wislna Street and through a deceptively unassuming doorway are several small dusty, cluttered rooms that serve as the editorial offices of Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly), Poland's leading Catholic paper and the longest-surviving independent newspaper in the Soviet Bloc.

A few battered typewriters sit among scattered stacks of old issues of the weekly. A lone ancient telex machine stands in a corner. On an aging shelf rests a picture of John Paul II, indicating Tygodnik's mainstay -- its strong links to the Roman Catholic Church and to the pope personally, who for years as archbishop of Krakow was a close consultant and frequent contributor to the paper.

A Solidarity poster stretches across one wall, celebrating the now-outlawed independent trade union whose rise four years ago was taken by the staff at Tygodnik as confirmation of their basic line about Poland being a nation yearning deeply for freedom, sovereignty and a sense of itself as subject rather than object of its destiny.

Once an oddity on the fringe of Poland's Communist-controlled press, Tygodnik Powszechny -- or General Weekly -- today enjoys the company of a flourishing array of Catholic publications. In recent years the government has allowed the Catholic press to expand to 60 papers with a combined circulation of more than 1.8 million -- a big jump, although still far short of the demand among Poland's 36 million people, most of whom are Catholic.

Tygodnik towers above the pack. It also draws the most government fire.

A front-page editorial several weeks ago urging further liberalization by the government brought a harsh official response. Editorials are rare in Tygodnik, which tries to avoid overt political statements. But the government's July announcement of a broad amnesty for political prisoners moved Tygodnik to argue for other steps it considers necessary for national reconciliation.

The editorial called for "a real vehicle for communication between the government and society," for "consistent implementation" of the government's economic reform program, for better understanding of "the real needs of the world of science and culture," and for settlement of "numerous" church-state disputes.

"Such changes would be conducive to a new climate in relations between the authorities and society," the paper declared. "But these changes alone will not have a major influence on an improvement of the sociopolitical situation in Poland. To achieve this target the style of government must change."

The authorities' retort came swiftly. Poland's main Communist daily Trybuna Ludu scoffed that Tygodnik had itself done little to contribute to peace in the country. It accused the Catholic paper of ignoring political and social realities. "Gentlemen, stop pretending that you are naive, and stop making fools of yourselves," it intoned.

Similarly derisive pieces quickly followed in Krakow's official Gazeta Krakowska, the youth-oriented Sztandar Mlodych and other Communist papers, in what was clearly a coordinated assault against the Catholic weekly.

Government spokesman Jerzy Urban, writing under his pen name "Jan Rem," said Tygodnik should "come down from the clouds, abandon sweet words, deal with the real situation that exists in Poland and face real public opinion."

In reply, Tygodnik wrote it was "sad" that "the only reaction to a text proposing a remarkable social opening was a chorus of invective, threats and ridicule from the other side. There was not a single serious or calm voice among them."

Those at Tygodnik suspect the editorial was allowed to run just to give the government a target. Generally, the paper shies from open clashes with the state. Its nonconfrontational style reflects the judgment of Jerzy Turowicz, 71, who founded the paper 39 years ago and continues as its editor-in-chief.

Few articles published in Tygodnik deal directly with political or economic topics. Most cover cultural, historical or religious subjects.

The paper plays a kind of hide-and-seek game with the government, scoring political points in allusions and metaphors tucked into seemingly arcane essays on past Polish uprisings, partitions and historical figures.

A popular feature in the paper that does address current affairs is a column of briefs on major events of the previous week. The report contains tidbits often buried or not found in the Communist press. What does or does not get into the column serves as a kind of editorial statement.

Tygodnik's critics fault the paper as appearing dull and detached from reality.

"The weekly, willy-nilly, has skipped totally to supplementary speech, full of allusions and symbols, where what is not said is more important than what is actually said," Stefan Kisielewski, a regular but critical Tygodnik contributor, wrote in July. "A magazine about the pope, full of historical essays, memoirs and contributions, bigotry, a bit of philosophy, a few forbidden names rarely found anywhere else -- that is what the weekly succeeds at."

In their defense, staffers say that because censorship frequently prevents their writing what they would like to on current affairs, they prefer to write on matters more removed.

Asked what Tygodnik stands for, Turowicz said: "We think a slow evolution in Poland is possible toward a higher degree of freedom, democracy and pluralism. We are against confrontation and violence. We are for dialogue.

"We take a pragmatic approach, but we are not as conformist as 'Pax' or the Christian Social Society two pro-state religious organizations . We are not against socialism, but we are against the totalitarian aspects of this regime. We are ready for dialogue but authentic dialogue, meaning talks between the state and representatives of society who have real credibility, talks on real issues not marginal ones."

Each week at least one or two articles that Tygodnik tries to publish are barred by the censor. Some pieces that do make it into print are heavily censored. The scars of these excisions are plain for all to see. Wherever the censor has struck, the paper inserts in brackets the phrase "Law of July 31, 1981, on the control of publications and performances, Article 2.1."

Occasionally, Tygodnik will threaten to sue to win the right to publish an article blocked by the censor. So far, the government has relented in each such instance rather than risk the scandal of a court process. But the paper uses this tactic sparingly.

In addition to keeping Tygodnik in tight rein by rigorous censorship, the government sharply limits its circulation. For years it was held to 40,000 copies weekly. Since the Solidarity period it has been allowed 80,000, but Turowicz estimates the paper could easily sell 300,000. It is still restricted to eight pages, while major Communist weeklies such as Polityka and Tu i Teraz are allowed 16-page issues.

What added newsprint the government has earmarked for the Catholic press has gone to start new publications. This is in line with church demands, but is also seen by some as part of a Communist scheme to splinter the Catholic opposition and dilute the influence of any one paper.

"Of course, the authorities are playing a kind of game," charged Turowicz. He nonetheless welcomed the company of an expanded Catholic press. "We had a monopoly in the past and it wasn't comfortable for us," he said.

Turowicz is relaxed toward his staff. He rarely issues orders. One Tygodnik writer described the paper as being run "like a patriarchal democracy."

The permanent staff numbers only about 15 writers and editors. All but five have been with the paper for more than 25 years. All share the same ideology. This homogeneity of views is regarded as one of Tygodnik's main defenses against Communist efforts to divide the staff.

"It's like the Soviet Politburo," quipped Maciej Kozlowski, a relative newcomer to the paper and, at 41, the second youngest on the staff.

Tygodnik receives many more articles from outside contributors than it can use. Many of the country's most talented journalists, who used to write for the Communist press, have been eager since the rise and fall of Solidarity to be published in Tygodnik.

Behind the paper's long survival is the strong position in Poland of the Catholic Church. Tygodnik is not an official church organ, but it maintains close contacts with the hierarchy. Clerics frequently contribute to its pages, and a priest is on the staff to edit articles on religion.

While an irritant for the government, Tygodnik is at least a kind of controllable opposition, which may explain in part why the paper has been tolerated.

By permitting a Catholic press to exist, Polish authorities also can claim they are not afraid of ideological confrontation.

Turowicz said he is "prudently optimistic" about Tygodnik's future.

Only twice has Tygodnik been suspended -- from 1953 to 1956 for failing to run an article on Stalin's death, and for five months after the imposition of martial law in December 1981.

But in the back of Turowicz's mind is the worry of what might happen should he retire or die.

"A change in my place would be a kind of earthquake," he remarked. "It could lead to unforeseen repercussions. It's not an easy problem."