NEW YORK (AP) _ Brendan Fay was on another continent _ indeed, in another life _ when he met Pope John Paul II a decade ago.

He was a church activist and theology student in Ireland, on the road to becoming a Roman Catholic high school teacher in New York. And he was, though he hadn't disclosed it, gay.

Fay is among many in America who consider themselves good Catholics yet disagree, in small ways or large, with church teachings. For them, the pope's visit evoked feelings of conflict, anguish and, yes, love.

``I have many mixed feelings about the pope,'' said Fay, 37. ``I feel awe, tremendous pain, a paradox.''

Amparo Segura, a 37-year-old church secretary, supports abortion rights, thinks women should be priests _ and realized a lifelong dream Friday by attending the papal Mass at Aqueduct Racetrack.

``I don't know how to explain it,'' she said.

Reconciling personal beliefs with church doctrine is ``a big problem that does not have an easy answer,'' Marta Olivera, 48, said at Aqueduct.

``I try not to think about it,'' said waitress Mary Messina, 34, who supports abortion rights for rape victims. She admitted that it felt ``awkward'' to even talk about abortion while waiting to see the pope.

Yet the diverse beliefs of American Catholics are probably most apparent during a papal visit, said the Rev. Bob Lawsine, the self-described ``radical'' pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea church in Brooklyn.

Fay agreed. ``Catholicism is under the microscope, its beauty and wrinkles and warts. That's good.''

Neither Fay nor Lawsine saw the pope in person, but his presence still stirred deep emotions.

``American Catholics love the pope, respect and revere him,'' even though some are angry with him, Lawsine said.

The pope has said that ``cafeteria Catholics'' _ those who choose for themselves which teachings to follow _ cannot call themselves good Catholics. Yet many Catholics disagree with the pope's views on birth control, abortion, homosexuality and married or female priests.

Most still feel a deep reverence for the pope _ and still consider themselves true Catholics.

``You can obey your conscience, not the pope, and still be a good Catholic,'' said Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, which favors church reform on sexuality issues. ``Who do they think are filling the churches?''

Most priests attempt to hold fast to church teachings, but priests are human and can't expect more than that from their flocks, Lawsine said.

``Jesus had compassion,'' he added.

Though the pope's edicts are sometimes ``oppressive,'' said Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-director of the Maryland-based Catholics Speak Out, ``he's a strong personality, and a likable personality. He gives Catholics a sense of connectedness to the larger church.''

For Fay, that ``connectedness'' must take place outside the official church. His gay activism got him fired from the Catholic school; he now works in a warehouse. He worships in a Protestant sanctuary, amid a congregation served by defrocked and insurgent priests. He is dedicated to changing the pope's church _ and has never felt more Catholic.

After leaving behind his native Ireland and his ``tortured, double life,'' he said, ``I discovered new ways of being Catholic.''

Instead of changing religions, ``my calling is to remain, and speak truthfully,'' he said. ``It's a struggle, but a good struggle.''

When the pope came to town, Fay dug out some mementos. ``I look at photos of my hand reaching out, his hand reaching out to me. I remember the silence I was bound up in.''

Maybe, Fay reasoned, ``he's coming with a message of hope, for me, too.''