The pews were jammed at St. John's Cathedral here Monday and thousands of persons stood along aisles in their coats, faces blushing with a workday's fatigue and the chill of a freezing night.

Yet as actors recited the works of Poland's 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz, the stillness of the crowd was so complete that the verses echoed solemnly in the church's vaults. "The spirit of liberty will never die," said one, "unless it condemns itself."

The blend of people, church and poetry from another century might have appeared quaint or simply irrelevant almost anywhere else in an era of secularism and television. This week in Warsaw, however, the St. John's recital was the highlight of a 10-day outpouring of readings, plays, art exhibitions and film presentations that are the manifesto of both a powerful social movement and a confrontation of growing importance between Poland's Communist authorities and the Roman Catholic Church.

The framework is the 11th annual Week of Christian Culture, whose slogan promises to "guard the basic sovereignty that every nation has through its culture." In more than 100 separate events in churches around Warsaw, thousands of Poles are viewing plays banned from official theaters and paintings withheld by artists from official galleries. There are concerts of songs never broadcast by official media and readings of poetry published only in the underground.

Though sponsored by the church, much of the art is unrelated to Catholic teachings; one reading is being conducted by a Jewish writer who scorns the official media. Yet many of the secular performances and exhibitions are not overtly political. Their significance, say their authors, is simply that they are uncensored and independent from Poland's official Communist-controlled culture.

The result is a glaring demonstration of the continuing breakdown in Poland of the central control over culture considered essential by governments in Soviet Bloc countries. Its timing is particularly embarrassing for the administration of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, which only last week assured the world that it had all but "normalized" the country's situation.

At the same time, the festival has underlined the resurgent connection between the Polish church and artists. The festival's works show how many writers, painters and dramatists have been drawn to the intertwined themes of Christianity, history and nationalism since 1980 even as the church has recreated its historical role as a refuge and inspiration for independent culture.

"The relationship of people of art and the church in Poland is not comparable with that in any other country," said the Rev. Wieslaw Nieweglowski, the head of the church's pastoral office for artists and the creator of the festival. "The church is taking care of the national identity, of the survival of Polish heritage through culture. That means creation in freedom, and full authenticity of expression."

Government authorities tend to regard such initiatives as an aggressive challenge by the church to state power. For the first time, censors have banned all mention of the cultural week from both the state media and the officially sanctioned Catholic press. "It is not only the cultural aspect we are concerned with, but also the political one," government spokesman Jerzy Urban explained at his weekly press conference.

"It's not a confrontation, as the authorities want to treat it," Nieweglowski countered. "The church is in favor of pluralism. But the authorities want to withdraw the initiative from culture, and interfere in church activities. This censorship of information is a new step."

There are more familiar measures, as well. For several years, officials have sought to prevent artists from participating in church cultural events, even when they present inoffensive material, and have blacklisted some church performers from all official events.

"The government wants to force us to choose one sponsor -- either the government or the church," said playwright Ernest Bryll, who was fired from his job in a film company and had his plays blacklisted after his work "Wieczernik," a religious drama with political overtones, was staged by director Andrzej Wajda in a Warsaw church last April. "The government has the idea that the church is a competitive cultural sponsor, with money and an ideology. This is not true -- the culture is there only because the government first drove it away."

Bryll and other artists maintain that the government policy has only served to exacerbate an increasingly sharp division between the realm of "official" culture and parallel independent movements both in and outside the churches. "This is a divided country, but culture doesn't have to be divided. It could serve as a bridge," Bryll said. "But the authorities are promoting the split."

Though engendered in literature in the mid-1970s, the cultural divide opened in earnest after the declaration of martial law and suppression of the trade union Solidarity in late 1981. Many of Poland's most important artists, actors, musicians and writers decided to boycott official forums, particularly after their organizations were dissolved during the crackdown.

While underground literature flourished independently of the church, relying more on the Solidarity political underground, most painters, actors, musicians and other artists seeking audiences found themselves turning to local parishes for refuge. "Painters need space," said Aleksander Wojciechowski, a leading art critic. "And the only space available outside the official galleries is in churches or in buildings near churches."

Though welcomed by a number of church parishes, including half a dozen around Warsaw, many artists were ambivalent about their new association. The doubts have deepened with charges by some critics that artists are adopting religious themes simply to please church authorities. "I'd rather not be in a church," said painter Marek Sapetto on the opening day of the cultural festival last weekend. "But there's simply no choice. There's no other place."

At the same time, many artists and church officials say that the collaboration of the last four years has revived and enriched Polish art while creating a dynamic new social exchange between artists and churchgoers. "The church is providing a public for artists unlike that which exists in any other country in the world," said Wojciechowski. "Workers and others who never went to galleries are being exposed in church to art for the first time. It's a new social situation, and it creates completely new possibilities in the art world."

Wojciechowski, who abandoned an official position organizing Polish art exhibitions abroad in 1982 to work on church-based art shows, pointed to an art exhibition last year in the Krakow suburb of Nowa Huta sponsored by a local church and featuring 100 major Polish artists. "Fifteen thousand people showed up for the opening," he said. "At nights, the critics and artists were being put up in workers' homes. How often do connections like that happen in art?"

While acknowledging that the independent cultural activity easily transcends the church and its influence even in those fields dependent on church help, Catholic priests and activists say the cooperation is also causing many artists to return to spiritual interpretations of the Polish historical tradition.

"Intellectuals and artists are coming back to their roots," said Nieweglowski. "The vision of socialist Poland included a vision of a new culture, and there was a tendency to cut off the whole tradition of the history of Polish culture. Now, different ideologies have been discredited, and artists are coming back to themselves, probing much deeper than political or social problems. And the roots of Polish culture were always in Christianity."