NEW ORLEANS, SEPT. 12 -- The pope showed his soul today, black American style. At a historic meeting with 1,800 black Roman Catholics at the Superdome, John Paul II clapped in time to spirituals, blessed the "providential role" of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., urged this country's Catholic hierarchy to recruit and promote more black priests, and declared that the church "can never remain silent in the face of injustice."

"I am at home among black Catholics," said the white-robed Polish pontiff, and from the joyous responding shouts of "Right!" and "Amen" and "So true," it became clear that the feelings were mutual. Forty-eight more times the crowd applauded the pope's words, giving the scene a vibrancy rarely associated with the American Catholic Church and an emotional bond between the pope and his audience otherwise lacking so far during his second tour of the United States.

"It was an uplifting, powerful experience," said Barbara Johnson of the St. Francis parish in West Palm Beach, Fla., who converted to Catholicism from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church 10 years ago. She sat in the 20th row with a direct view of the pope, her husband, Rudy, on one side and friend Liz Orange on the other.

She listened with eyes closed and a broad smile until the pope, in a thickly accented voice that took on a new rhythm and clarity, said: "Know that the pope stands united with the black community as it rises to embrace its full dignity and lofty destiny."

When the pope said the word "dignity" a rush of exhilaration came over her, she said, and by the time he reached "destiny," she let the tears stream down her face.

One-fifth of New Orleans' 500,000 Catholics are black. There are only 1.3 million black Catholics in the United States -- about 5 percent of the black population, 2 1/2 percent of American Catholics -- but the numbers are rising now that the church has opened itself to such expressions of black religious culture as gospel choirs and extemporaneous audience participation.

This pope has also had an impact. Cultural diversity has been one of his themes as he has visited more than 60 countries in the last eight years.

Before the pope entered the Superdome conference hall this morning, the 11 bishops, scores of priests and deacons, and parishoners from all over America had listened to 10 stirring hymns and gospel songs, many of them of black Baptist and Methodist origin, from "Rockin' Jerusalem" to "Deep River."

The Most Rev. James Patterson Lyke, auxiliary bishop of Cleveland, led them through a practice round of "Black Thankfulness" -- the song with which they would greet the pope. He looked loose and happy, and he told everyone to do the same. "During the visit of the Holy Father, simply be yourselves," he said. "If you want to say 'amen,' say 'amen.' This is our church this morning."

The pope was greeted by Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze of Biloxi, Miss., who noted that "in the minds of some people, being black and Catholic is not a spontaneous concept." In recruiting members, he said, the church needs not only to embrace the black culture but develop black leadership. "The cause of evangelization in the black community is so crucial," he said, "that we need the collaboration of the entire church."

Shouts of "Yes! Yes!" came from the audience. The pope nodded and smiled.

In his speech, the pope emphasized what he called the "special blessing" of the black American experience -- a deep spirituality despite slavery and economic deprivation; a sense of forgiveness and reconciliation "even {for} those who would unjustly deny you the full exercise of your human rights" and, during the civil rights struggle, "a response of nonviolence {that} stands, in the memory of this nation, as a monument of honor to the black community."

Accidentally or not, the pontiff twice repeated phrases in the rhetorical style of many black orators, as he was interrupted by shouts of "Yes!" "He sure did!" "All right!" and "Uh Huh!" He finished off his civil-rights section with words of praise for King, a Baptist, and "the providential role he played in contributing to the rightful human betterment of black Americans and therefore to the improvement of American society itself."

The pope rarely lets a speech go by without discussing what he considers to be the evils of modern American society. This time he did it by comparing them with slavery, saying that the world today is "shackled by consumerism, pleasure-seeking and irresponsible individualism -- shackles of the spirit which are even more destructive than the chains of physical slavery."

But he had no other harsh words. He said the Catholic Church needed blacks. "Dear brothers and sisters, your black cultural heritage enriches the church and makes her witness of universality complete," he said.

"Yes!" shouted Barbara Johnson.

"Amen!" said Liz Orange.

"That's right!" said Rudy Johnson.

When the speech was over, as the pope clapped to another round of "Black Thankfulness," Rudy Johnson stood on his tiptoes and snapped a picture of the pope and Bishop Howze.

Black Catholic leaders, including Auxiliary Bishop Eugene Antonio Marino of Washington, D.C., and Auxiliary Bishop John Huston Ricard of Baltimore, said they were deeply moved by the pope's first-ever meeting with them, by the substance of his speech and by his warmth.

"I was absolutely delighted," said Marino, whose archdiocese includes 70,000 blacks out of a total black population of nearly 1 million. "He spoke to every issue of concern to us. He upheld our cultural diversity and told us to be proud of it. He called for more black leadership. His theme of human dignity is very special to us.

"It might be a foreign idea to many Americans, but it is a familiar one to John Paul and to us. That is what makes him special to us. You could feel it in that room today."