Jeanne Steele feels eminently qualified for priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. She has a master of divinity degree, 20 years of pastoral ministry experience and teaches seminary students here how to be ministers.

When she looks into the faces of young, clean-cut men in her classroom, she sees eager students destined to be priests while she, a graduate of their seminary, is not.

In a world where women have become astronauts and led troops in combat, Steele has found the road to the pulpit blocked because she is a she. So sensitive is the issue, Steele said, that she is concerned she could lose her part-time teaching job if the name of the seminary is mentioned in this article.

"There isn't an openness to fully divulge who we are without a certain amount of anger, without meeting defensiveness," said Steele, 59, a psychotherapist in Vienna who is married and has four adult children. "It's very discouraging. There's no way I can find a full home in the church," said Steele, who might also be barred from ordination because she is married.

In only a handful of cases, mostly involving Anglican ministers who converted to Roman Catholicism, has the Vatican approved married priests although other Catholic rites permit them.

As the nation's Catholic bishops gather here this week for their annual meeting, the role of women in the church is an unsettled agenda item. It remains an issue because of Catholic women such as Steele, who possess still another priest-like quality -- eternal hope.

Hundreds of women, predominantly Catholic and from around the country, plan to rally Monday outside the conference hotel, celebrating through liturgies, the breaking of bread and discussions on sexism in the church.

"The male hierarchical, patriarchal institution is a dinosaur, and rigor mortis is setting in," said Ruth Fitzpatrick, national coordinator of the Women's Ordination Conference, which has led the campaign for women priests for 15 years.

The feminist movement has swept most mainline Christian denominations and Judaism, winning for women the right to lead congregations. Yet in the Catholic church, ordination of women remains a closed subject. Pope John Paul II has made clear in writings and speeches that the church is unlikely to lift its 2,000-year prohibition on anyone other than a male priest celebrating the sacraments.

The Vatican has said women must be excluded from priesthood because they do not image Christ.

"Jesus himself was male and chose only males for priesthood," said the Rev. Timothy Dolan in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican Embassy, in Washington.

"There are traditions with a capital 'T' which we can't change because they come from Christ. And there are traditions with a small 't', like no meat on Friday, that can be changed by the church. The prohibition against the ordination of women belongs to the tradition with a capital 'T,' " Dolan said.

"According to the mind of the church, there would be some things the Church could not change because some things come to us right from the words or the examples of Christ," Dolan said.

In a recent move that diverted criticism from liberals and conservatives in the church, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops postponed indefinitely its planned vote here this week on a policy-making pastoral letter on women's concerns. The final draft affirmed women's equality but said they cannot be priests.

The pastoral will be addressed at the conference on an informational basis only, after the Vatican requested that bishops in other countries be consulted. Ordination is an issue for Catholics worldwide but has received visible priority in the United States, partly because of the bishops' seven-year effort on the pastoral.

For the nation's 55 million Roman Catholics, issues such as abortion, birth control and gender-neutral language carry more emotional potency, but the right to ordination has become the key symbol for empowerment of women in the church, according to religious experts and feminist theologians.

"It symbolizes women's exclusion not only from ordained ministry but from decision-making power," said Sister Maria Riley, a research associate at the Center of Concern, a Catholic research organization here.

The quest for women's ordination comes as the worldwide shortage of priests is growing more acute.

Of the 53,112 U.S. priests, 34,553 are diocesan and 18,559 members of religious orders, according to the 1990 Official Catholic Directory. In 1960 there were 53,796 priests but 15 million fewer Catholics. But Richard A. Schoenherr, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the Catholic directory includes sick, retired and absent priests. He predicted that by 2005, about 40 percent fewer priests will be active than the number in the mid-1960s because of resignations and declining ordinations.

"The pastoral needs are going to dictate our looking at the question {of women's ordination} faster than we realize," said Sister Theresa Kane in New York, whose public comments to Pope John Paul II about including women in the church's ministry created an uproar on his first U.S. visit in 1979. "The women who are feeling called to ordination are feeling very urgent about it because they see a need for it and also are convinced it is an appropriate ministry for women as well as men."

In Rochester, N.Y., Nancy DeRycke, 37, a 16-year member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, is one of hundreds of women waiting to replenish the priesthood.

DeRycke said she hurts inside when she visits the seriously ill in hospitals each week and cannot hear confessions or anoint the sick. She expressed frustration about being allowed to lead a Communion service but not to say Mass in her middle-class parish of 1,600 people in suburban Rochester.

"These are hard times. More people in the pews are asking, 'Why is this the law' and asking the other question, 'Why not?,' " said the pastoral associate, who next spring is to complete her master of divinity degree, the academic prerequisite for ordination. "I tell my friends I'm eating a lot of oat bran and exercising regularly so I can live long enough to see it happen."

DeRycke said she hears a call from God to the priesthood that is reinforced every day by experiences with people whom she meets. In giving homilies, leading Communion services and planning liturgies, DeRycke said she tries to serve as a model of what a female priest would be like.

"I'm not here to be a part of a power struggle but part of helping the church recognize people's gifts," she said.

DeRycke is one of 479 women in the country identified as qualified for priesthood by the Women's Ordination Conference, which estimates that several thousand more also may qualify.

Fifteen years ago, nuns comprised the majority of U.S. women who wanted to be ordained. Now the number of lay women, who increasingly have assumed administrative positions in priestless parishes, nearly surpasses the number of nuns who want to be ordained, according to Fitzpatrick of the Women's Ordination Conference.

Although some women advocate restructuring the hierarchy into a more participative, power-sharing system before they would consider becoming priests, others such as Karen Schwartz of San Mateo, Calif., want to work within the system, if they could be ordained now.

"If we wait for the current system to change to be ordained, we'll be waiting forever," said Schwartz, 33, an unmarried clinical psychologist who said she sometimes feels like a prisoner of her religion.

Male liturgical references are so upsetting that she sometimes skips Mass, she said. She will not work for the church because she refuses to recognize all-male authority. She said she became an associate of the Sisters of Mercy rather than a full member, forsaking the vows and a vote, to preserve her integrity. Schwartz said she receives spiritual nourishment from a group of women who meet for a service in each other's homes twice a month.

"I believe in the Catholic church," Schwartz said. "It's a part of who I am. I cannot not be a Catholic, and I won't be squeezed out." She plans to work for a master's degree in liturgy and a doctorate in theology in the hope that she eventually will be ordained.

As the struggle continues, parishioners have become more open-minded about female and married clergy, according to a study of 20 U.S. parishes by Ruth Wallace, a sociology professor at George Washington University. Lay people head about 300 of the nation's 19,860 parishes, and 70 percent of them are women, Wallace reported.

Wallace found that parishioners tend to resent such women at first but accept them within a year because of the quality of their work.

Steele, the seminary teacher, said she has never expected overnight change in the church. But her 25-year-old son, a second-year seminary student, likely will be ordained before she can hope to be. She said she plans to sit proudly at his ordination, then go out and demonstrate for female priests.

"I always say, 'Don't do this unless you can do nothing else,' " Steele said. "It has to be so important that you can't do anything other than this because there's a lot of pain and struggle in the church today."