MIAMI, SEPT. 10 -- Pope John Paul II, flying to the second U.S. visit of his eight-year-old papacy, today described Roman Catholic dissent in America as "a serious problem" but said his message will be directed equally to "the great silent majority that is faithful."

Strolling the aisles of his chartered Alitalia Boeing 747 jet over the Atlantic, the pope greeted the 75 reporters aboard and told them he was not apprehensive about reports of demonstrations -- by women, homosexuals and Jews -- along his south-southwestern route.

"Oh, I am accustomed to that," he said with a shrug, his blue eyes merry. "It would not quite be normal not having that -- especially in America."

The question, he said, is whether it is "the dissent of many, many of the faithful people, or is it dissent only of some very pronounced theologians or publishers, writers, perhaps journalists?"

Looking rested and vigorous, the 67-year-old pope held his walking news conference in French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, German and English. He insisted that he does not despair over the increasingly liberal behavior of American Catholics since the Second Vatican Council made worship and parish administration more accessible to the laity in the mid-1960s.

"I am convinced that the American church is a good church, a very good church," the pope said. "There are so many people living in America, it is a very good church."

Questioned about recent polls indicating that most U.S. Catholics disagree with Vatican teachings on such issues as divorce and birth control, the pope said public opinion does not run the church.

"The Catholic Church is not a democratic institution; it's an institution governed by Jesus Christ, a theocratic one," the pope said. "We are only servants of one chief, of one pastor. We are only his instruments, his envoys. It is difficult {to compare} the Catholic Church . . . and a democratic state."

Questioned about his meeting last June with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who is accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes, he sought to explain his stance without softening his position.

"It was necessary to show the same appreciation, the same esteem for every people," he said. "He came as a president, democratically elected, of a people, of a nation."

Last week, the pope held an unprecedented give-and-take session at the Vatican with international Jewish leaders in an effort to defuse Jewish outrage over the Waldheim visit. Though the Vatican and the Jewish delegation said they had "agreed to disagree agreeably," the session seemed to soften threats of a boycott of his meeting with Jewish leaders in Miami Friday, although some representatives have withdrawn.

On the subject of the church's stance against homosexuality, codified in a controversial Vatican document last October, the pope spoke of being open to the "suffering" of homosexuals and of those suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which mostly has struck homosexual men and intravenous drug abusers.

"They are not outcasts, the homosexuals," the pope said, breaking a personal silence on the issue. "Like all people who suffer, they are inside the church. No, not inside the church, in the heart of the church."

The pope, who will visit AIDS patients in California next week, said the church "is doing all that is possible to heal and especially prevent the moral background to the disease" and deflected a question about whether the church regards it as God's punishment.

"It is not easy to know the intentions of God Himself. He is a great mystery," the pope said. "We know that He is justice. He is mercy. He is love."