Nearly 50 Roman Catholics from dozens of parishes around Washington met yesterday to confess the same frustration: Pope John Paul II, they said, just doesn't know what it's like to be Catholic.

"It's difficult for me as a mature responsible woman and a parent of four to remain in the Catholic Church," Dana Green, a history instructor at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, said to a crowd gathered at the Washington Theological Union in Silver Spring as part of a protest to this week's papal visit. "The Catholic Church is not a democracy . . . . It systematically excludes persons of my gender."

"I'm practicing birth control because I think it's the moral thing to do," said Charlie Davis, a retired analyst for the Defense Department and a member of Communitas, a church-sanctioned lay-run community in Washington. "I worked for a hierarchy for nine years -- the U.S. Navy -- and I know what a good hierarchy is. We're in a hierarchy that's about the worst kind I know . . . one that relies solely on the opinion of celibate males."

"I'm not a dissident Catholic. I'm just being what I am," said Paul Albergo, a member of Dignity/Washington, a national organization of gay and lesbian Catholics. "We have gifts to offer the church. And now the church must do what I've had to do -- accept my sexuality."

For three hours yesterday, Catholics who just cannot give up on a church that they say both draws and repels them offered solace to each other and lamented the conservative message of Pope John Paul II during his second visit to the United States.

In cathartic statements, each stood before an auditorium of listeners and spoke of his or her struggle, sometimes waged in silence and never without pain and suffering. Some marveled at the idea that they could still remain faithful. Many spoke of the need for a leader who could pull them together as a community of Christians.

Yesterday's meeting, a quiet protest tinged with restrained bitterness and hope, was sponsored by eight Catholic organizations in the Washington area as part of a nationwide protest planned by Catholics Speak Out, a grass roots organization of Catholics seeking a greater voice in the church.

The national group of about 4,000 Catholics calls for the pope to reconcile the teachings of the church with what they regard as realities of modern life: the use of contraceptives, the rights of women, the acceptance of alternative life styles.

Catholics Speak Out had asked the pope to meet with groups of parishioners outside the formal meetings scheduled this visit. When that request was rejected, the organization decided to sponsor forums to encourage a dialogue that it hopes will spark reforms, said Monica Neff, organizer of yesterday's seminar.

"We don't claim to be dissenters of the church. Rather, we are the center of the church," Neff said. "We want to be participators rather than sideline watchers who have been told to blindly obey . . . . I think what's disturbing to the pope is we are very much involved in the church."

Transcripts of yesterday's testimony are to be sent to the Archdiocese of Washington and to the Vatican, and participants said they hoped that their words will make a difference. Yet many conceded that their faith in God will have to sustain their faith in their church.

The pope "may not listen to us. But I think other Catholics will," said Sarita Hudson, co-coordinator of Catholics Speak Out. "Every instance of things like this has an impact. After all, we are the church too."