Pope John Paul II began a visit to the Netherlands today with an appeal to rebellious Dutch Catholics to accept his authority to appoint church leaders and those leaders' right to set moral guidelines for their followers.

Acknowledging the deep divisions among Dutch Catholics in the first homily of his trip, the pontiff said "this suffering on account of the church grieves me." But, "in the final analysis, the pope has to take the decisions," he said.

John Paul made the appeal at St. John's Cathedral in Den Bosch, in the predominantly Catholic southern region of the country. He delivered the speech shortly after his arrival for his first visit to the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The five-day trip to the Netherlands is considered one of the most difficult for the pontiff since he assumed the papacy in 1978.

The Dutch church, weakened by disagreements between its independent liberal wing and Rome since the 1960s, has lost many of its followers and has had difficulty finding new adherents. Strong opposition to the pope's strict views on birth control, abortion and sexual morality, along with unrest over Vatican appointments of conservative bishops, has left a majority of the Netherlands' 5.5 million Catholics either indifferent or opposed to the visit, according to recent polls.

The lack of interest in the papal trip was underlined by the small crowds, estimated at only several thousand, that greeted the pope at the airport at Eindhoven, and as he was driven into Den Bosch.

Many of the bystanders along the pope's route merely watched without clapping or waving as he went by. A sign borne by helium balloons and reading "Pope go Rome," in English, floated over the pope's route shortly before he arrived.

In Amsterdam, about 150 young people dressed as nuns and monks hung the pope in effigy. Alarmed by threats against the pope's life in the months preceding his visit, the Dutch government mobilized 10,000 policemen to guard the pontiff during his stay. Security was tight, with police allowing only local residents with tickets distributed in advance to enter the quarter where the cathedral is located.

The divisions within the Dutch church have been fueled by a series of Vatican appointments of conservative leaders, culminating in John Paul's recent elevation of conservative Archbishop Adrianus Simonis to cardinal.

Although the pope has declined to meet with dissident Catholics during his visit, he addressed the issue in his homily.

Freedom, he said, "must develop in respect for those called by Christ to pastoral service . . . . Experience shows, moreover, that freedom develops best if it keeps to the rules of morality and accepts the guidelines given by the shepherds of God's people."

The pope, 64, also said that he "attempts to understand the life of the local church in the appointment of every bishop . . . . Be convinced that I have truly listened, considered carefully and prayed."

"I appointed the person before God whom I thought most suitable for the job. Accept him, for the sake of the love of Christ."