A three-day meeting between Pope John Paul II and 21 high-ranking Brazilian prelates, including five cardinals, ended here this weekend with a call for greater unity and dialogue within Brazil's divided Roman Catholic Church and between that church and the Vatican.

The Vatican and the bishops today issued a final statement saying that the purpose of the meeting had been "to deepen the quality of communion" between the Brazilian church, the largest in the world, and the pope.

The statement said the meeting had been characterized by "intense reflection" and had ended with "renewed sentiments of gratitude and affection for the pope and full adherence to his teachings and ministry for the universal church."

In an address last night, released today by the Vatican, the pope told the Brazilian bishops, "I am sure that I would not be misunderstood if I would say that it is better to take a small step in the direction of unity within the conference, rather than many steps that might break unity."

The meeting, which had been described as the final stage of an overall assessment of the health of the Brazilian church, was seen as part of John Paul's attempt to create a consensus on the church's proper role in the political and social spheres.

One of the issues over which Brazilian church leaders have been divided in recent years is liberation theology, a doctrine born in the Third World that says spiritual development cannot take place without parallel social, economic and political freedom.

The doctrine sometimes uses Marxist tools of analysis, and some of its adherents support class warfare on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

The pope and some Vatican theologians, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accept some aspects of liberation theology, such as its commitment to the poor.

But they have objected to the doctrine's Marxist aspects and to the political activism it has fostered among many Third World priests, and they have warned that the church must not substitute itself for politicians and trade union leaders.

The final session yesterday was devoted to a briefing by Ratzinger on a new Vatican document on liberation theology, "Christian Freedom and Liberation," scheduled to be released next month.

Participants in the meeting said progress had been made in improving the quality of the dialogue between the Brazilian bishops on the one hand and John Paul and members of the Vatican Curia on the other.

But it appeared that some disagreements continue.

"When you have 350 bishops and thus 350 different individuals, you're going to have certain conflicts, and those conflicts are going to create a certain tension," said Bishop Tomas Guilherme Murphy, an American Redemptorist who heads a northeastern region of the Brazilian bishops' conference.

Murphy said that although most Brazilian clergy agree that the church must get involved in a place such as Brazil where there is "an astounding degree of poverty, an astounding degree of injustice," there is disagreement about how to bring this about.

The 58-year-old Nebraskan, who has spent 30 years in Brazil, said the pope wanted the bishops to be involved and urged them to take an interest in the delicate subject of agrarian reform because if changes are not made in that field "we are going to have social unrest."

Murphy said only a minority of Brazilian priests support the Marxist class-struggle approach to liberation theology, while the majority would go along with a less-controversial form of "pastoral liberation," which would emphasize a moral commitment by the church to the poor and oppressed, rather than a political commitment.

He said the dialogue that had been achieved during the meeting might make it easier to arrive at "a peaceful method that would be able to bring people to a more conscious dimension of their dignity, their rights and their privileges."