SAN FRANCISCO, SEPT. 15 -- U.S. Catholic officials said today that while Pope John Paul II did not endorse the American Sanctuary movement in his San Antonio homily Sunday, he offered support to those who help the growing number of Hispanics living illegally in this country.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service asked the Vatican Monday to clarify its position on the Sanctuary movement, after the pope praised the "courage and generosity" of Catholics who help refugees "arriving from the South."

The pope did not mention specifically illegal aliens or the movement, which involves about 300 Protestant and Catholic churches that have provided shelter to illegal immigrants from Central America. Several Sanctuary workers have been tried and sentenced to prison for their participation.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Monday that the pope "was not addressing any specific moral movement" but intended "to implement the full message of the Gospel."

INS spokesman Verne Jervis said today that his office has not received a statement from the pope but that Navarro-Valls' statement to the media is "a step in the right direction."

The exchange between the INS and the Vatican raises the visibility of the U.S. Catholic Church's growing behind-the-scenes role in helping illegal Hispanic immigrants.

One Catholic official today described "an uneasy truce" between the INS and the Catholic Church, to which many undocumented immigrants turn for housing, food and jobs.

The pope "was encouraging those individuals who work with the undocumented," Pablo Sedilla, director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said today. Sedilla, who accompanied John Paul II in San Antonio, said the pope's remarks were "consistent with his earlier statements that every individual has a right to migrate to better his social or economic position."

The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated that 3.5 million Hispanics live illegally in the United States. At least 90 percent are Catholic, and many are poor and illiterate. The Catholic Church has dramatically increased the number of programs for Hispanics, often protecting those they help from publicity.

The Washington Archdiocese, with as many as 350,000 Hispanics, spent $1.2 million last year on programs for Hispanics. Archdiocesean officials say that one of every seven Hispanics who come to them for help in applying for legalization qualifies for the amnesty provision passed last year.

And the other six? "We help them in any way we can," said the Rev. Kevin Farrell, director of the Hispanic Catholic Center. Such help includes temporary shelters, he said, "but don't ask me where they are, because I wouldn't tell you."

Farrell said he has never been asked by INS agents to reveal illegals' whereabouts and would not answer if asked. "The less we say to the government about them, the more we can protect them," he said.

Msgr. Raymond Boland, second in command in the archdiocese, said he could understand how Sanctuary workers might be encouraged by the pope's speech. But he said that most churches involved in the official movement are Protestant and that Catholic churches have preferred to seek ways of helping "without breaking the law."

The difference, Boland acknowledged, "is a fine line."