VATICAN CITY, OCT. 9 -- A role for women in the Roman Catholic Church's diplomatic corps or its administrative curia has emerged as a central issue of debate in the first week of a worldwide synod of bishops here.

Although the month-long gathering of 232 prelates was to discuss the wider issue of the "vocations and mission" of lay persons "in the church and the world," the opening sessions have been dominated by discussion of women's demands for a greater role in the church, which bars them from the priesthood.

"No theme has been more frequently mentioned in this synod," said Msgr. John L. May, the archbishop of St. Louis and president of the American Bishops Conference, in a meeting with reporters today.

At the end of the month, the bishops are scheduled to present Pope John Paul II with their nonbinding recommendations.

Church officials said the pope can be expected to address the bishops' concerns. Although the pontiff has said that the issue of ordaining women is beyond consideration, he has expressed concern about finding a way for women to feel more at home in the church.

"There is a clear consensus that the church must do everything in its power to put an end to unjust discrimination against women in its own structures and practices and also in the structures and practices of society," Archbishop May said.

But he added that the ordination of women was not being considered, because the church's "authentic teaching" on the issue "is clear and not open to change."

"Short of that, however, the sense of the synod is that we should examine other roles and functions in the church and move ahead vigorously -- as, in fact, has been happening in recent years -- to open up as many of these as is deemed possible to women," he said.

The session's most provocative suggestion came earlier this week from Bishop Rembert G. Weakland, the liberal archbishop of Milwaukee, who proposed that lay women and men be considered for "decision-making and administrative roles on all levels of church life."

These jobs, he said, should include "major positions in the curia and diplomatic corps" of the Vatican. Diplomatic positions in the Vatican bureaucracy by tradition have been monopolized by church prelates and priests.

"Many women, it is true, are satisfied with the present situation" of women, Weakland told his fellow bishops. "But it is difficult, if not impossible, for us bishops gathered here to realize the pain and frustration that so many other women feel toward the church.

"Women who are loyal to and love the church express dismay and discouragement if their talents and contributions to church life are stifled or rejected," he said. "They want to be heard and consulted on issues that affect them deeply."