SAN FRANCISCO, SEPT. 18 -- Mainstream American Catholics -- two from each diocese in the country -- met Pope John Paul II today and they liked the man, even as they disagreed with parts of his now-familiar message.

Their spokeswoman, Donna Hanson, told the pope that "Not to question, not to challenge, not to have authorities involve me . . . is to deny me my dignity as a person and the rights granted to me both by church and society."

The pope replied that men and women have equal dignity in the eyes of the church but not equal roles. Their shared duty, he said, is not to challenge the church but to challenge society's conscience.

Their words were direct, but their tone was warm, and between their speeches, Hanson and John Paul II clasped hands. "You gave a good talk," he told her quietly, as Hanson's two sons applauded with the rest of the congregation.

"What more could I ask?" she said later.

The 3,000 men and women at St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, chosen from among 53 million U.S. Roman Catholics, made up the most representative group of lay Catholics the pope has encountered on his U.S. visit, now in its ninth day.

Mark Jantzen, an office equipment salesman from North Dakota was there. So was Catherine Aragon, a homemaker from New Mexico. Thomas and Maria Cornell, church workers from Redwood City, Calif., wouldn't have missed it, even though it meant bringing their 2-week-old son and all his paraphernalia.

Most were affluent, well educated, white and middle-aged, but they came, Hanson said, from every profession, culture and race in the United States, bringing with them 3,000 different perspectives. Nonetheless, "unity, not division, is our goal; service, not power is our mission," Hanson said.

They applauded five times as Hanson, a social minister in Catholic Charities USA and volunteer chairwoman of an advisory council to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the pope to "walk in their shoes." She asked him to understand how American culture influences the way they practice their faith and sometimes makes them appear disloyal, particularly on issues of sexual morality and the ecclesiastical role of women.

John Paul called for renewed fidelity to those very teachings. "On moral issues of fundamental importance, it is at times necessary to challenge public{ly} the conscience of society . . . ," he said. "It is up to . . . the Catholic laity to incarnate without ceasing the Gospel in society -- in American society."

But after his pointed, four-hour encounter Thursday with U.S. bishops on much the same subject, he spoke gently and chose his words carefully, emphasizing his church as compassionate, forgiving and encouraging to those who stray. The effort endeared him to many of his listeners.

And in a master stroke of timing, as the congregation sang the last hymn "Here I Am Lord," he surprised them by grabbing a microphone and saying, in broken English, "I am still here, always here, from where you are looking from." The crowd cheered.

When he left the cathedral, the pope went to Candlestick Park, where he held an open-air Mass for an estimated 80,000 people. But the lay delegates prepared to meet again later in the day to discuss his speech and the issues they issues they plan to raise at a synod of the laity in Rome in October.

That gathering will be the first in Rome for lay Catholics, and like today's session, it signals the laity's growing voice in a church in which the number of priests are declining dramatically. Many lay Catholics say their new leadership roles in worship, church administration and religious education has stabilized a drop in church membership in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The pope's expression did not change as Hanson described the impact of such changes on the American church and the impact of social changes on American Catholics. But her colleagues in the audience gave her loud, sustained ovation.

Hanson called for the church to be more open to the participation of women, divorced parishioners who remarry outside the faith, minorities, and "inactive clergy," a reference to priests who have left their ministries to be married.

She asked for the pontiff's understanding of young families balancing the demands of "being a loving spouse and making responsible decisions about parenthood," an apparent reference to artificial birth control methods practiced by a majority of Catholics and proscribed by the church.

But her overriding message was that the laity wants to be consulted more often in church decisions. "Accustomed as I am to dialogue, consultation and collaboration, I do not always feel that I am heard . . . ," she said. "When I come to my church, I cannot discsrd my cultural experiences. Though I knmow the church is not a democracy . . . , I expect to be treated as a mature, educated, responsible adult."

"Let me walk with you as you preserve orthodox teachings . . . ," she concluded. "Your Holiness, please let me know that you are willing to walk with me."

The pope replied directly to many of her points, recognizing "the difficulty of so many poeple with regard to family living" and citing the single-parent families, the elderly, the widowed and the divorced. He reaffirmed the church's practice of denying communion to those who remarry outside the faith but assured "these Catholics too of her deep love. She prays for them and encourages them to persevere in prayer."

He tied the role of women to the family as well, reiterating a church doctrine that "the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions."

He said that "because of their equal dignity . . . the access of women to public function must be insured," leaving unsaid the fact that women have no access in the church to the priesthood. At the end of his speech, the pope praised Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a laywoman, a reference that did not go unnoticed by several lay leaders in the audience.

Changing the church's position on women, they said later, may be impossible, particularly during this papacy. Nonetheless, most of them said they felt affirmed by today's meeting simply because John Paul listened to them and seemed to hear.

The day's celebratory spirit continued into the afternoon as men and women gathered in a meeting room at the cathedral to discuss what they had heard.

Some spoke about the content of John Paul's speech. But mostly, they had little stories to share which made the successor to Peter seem more human: the extra minute he took to pray as he entered the cathedral, for example, and the hug he gave a woman in the front row who, when he touched her, burst into tears.

"The meeting was a tremendous affirmation of the pope," said Dolores Leckey, director of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Laity. Lecky has surveyed thousands of men and women in preparation for the October synod, and she was not surprised by the delegates' reaction.

American Catholics often tell her that they want a personal relationship with their priest -- "and after all, she said, the pope is the chief priest."

The pope arrived tonight in Detroit, the last stop of his 10-day, nine-city U.S. tour before he goes to Canada and back to Rome. John Paul, born in Poland, is to meet there with Polish Americans, hold Mass in the Pontiac Silverdome and meeting with Vice President Bush.