Despite the hostility in some church quarters, Ms. Fitzpatrick said, more than 2,000 men and women are expected to attend the WOC convention in Arlington, Va., scheduled to coincide with an annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
Another organization seeking the pope's change of heart on the ordination of women is Catholics Speak Out, based in Hyattsville. It plans to circulate a letter to John Paul during his visit to Baltimore, stating that "thousands of Catholic women feel called to priesthood and hundreds of married priests yearn to return to ministry."
Warning that "inflexible policies" in the face of a worsening shortage of priests - as church membership continues to grow - threaten to deprive many Catholics of the Mass on Sundays, the organization accused the pope and other church leaders of "considering a male celibate clergy as more precious than our communities' need for the Eucharist."
Conservatives and liberals in the Catholic Church cite different percentages, but all agree that a majority of lay people now support the ordination of women. The extent of the support has increased steadily over the last two decades.
Gallup polls indicated that the ratio of American Catholics favoring female priests rose from 29 percent in 1974 to 36 percent in 1977 to 47 percent in 1985 to 67 percent in 1991. According to the Women's Ordination Conference, current studies show the Catholic laity "overwhelmingly in support of women's ordination."
A recent study commissioned by the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said 55 percent think the church should ordain women, 39.5 percent disagree and 5.5 percent aren't sure.
All groups within the church agree that the majority in support of allowing priests to marry has consistently been higher than for allowing women to be ordained.
While Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy is one of only a few members of the Catholic hierarchy who publicly support the ordination of women, Baltimore's archbishop, Cardinal Keeler, firmly backs Pope John Paul's adherence to the tradition of an all-male clergy.
Indicative of the split that remains among Catholics over the ban on female priests, however, is the failure of the U.S. bishops to produce a pastoral letter on women's concerns despite nine years of trying.
After soliciting the opinions of 75,000 Catholic women from around the country and then running into opposition from the Vatican, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Cardinal Keeler is president, has finally given up the effort to produce a document on women. The bishops tabled their fourth revision three years ago.