ROME (AP) _ More than 8,000 Poles have fled to Italy this year, filling refugee shelters and straining Italian hospitality.

They come in hopes of finding permanent homes in the United States, Canada or Australia.

The influx has gained wide attention in the Italian news media and has prompted Pope John Paul II, himself a Pole, to speak out on their behalf.

That has put the Roman Catholic Church somewhat at odds with the Italian government.

''Italy is one of most hospitable countries in the world,'' Interior Minister Amintore Fanfani said recently, but it doesn't want to ''give the illusion that the whole world can be Italy's guest.''

As the crisis developed, Bishop Szczepan Wesoly, a Pole appointed by the pope to give pastoral care from the Vatican to Poles outside of Poland, said Italy should limit the number of his countrymen allowed to enter or find better ways to deal with them.

He added that the church recognizes as valid the reasons Poles leave their country - economic hardship and political pressure.

''But then all 40 million Poles should flee,'' Wesoly said, ''and there are many who, living in much worse conditions, should have precedence over those who do arrive in Italy.''

Italian authorities and the news media say that the Poles are mostly professionals, who have the means to travel.

Emergency Cabinet-level meetings in Rome have touched off rumors that the government would send back to Poland all those who didn't qualify for political refugee status, for which only about 5 percent would be eligible.

Many Italian political leaders spoke out against such a possibility, and the pope said that the Poles should be sent home only ''on the condition that they want to.''

But officials from the Interior Ministry said that while they would seek to reduce the number of visas issued by the Italian Consulate in Warsaw, Poles already in Italy would not be sent home.

The Rev. Andrzej Duczkowski, who acts as chaplain of Polish refugees, told The Associated Press that the number of people coming from Poland has increased in recent months because authorities there now issue tourist passports to entire families.

Before, he explained, only one or two members were given permission to leave, an apparent government effort to make sure those who left returned home.

Even before crossing the Polish border by car, train or plane, most Poles know they are headed for Latina, a small city about 50 miles south of Rome. There, more than 1,500 of their countrymen crowd dormitories or camp in tents on the grounds of the fenced-in refugee center, built to hold about 800.

Others are sent to centers in northern Italy, Capua near Naples, and Castelnuovo, south of Rome. Still others are housed in about 30 hotels in and around Rome.

They wait in the shelters for news of their requests for visas to other countries, which Duczkowski said often takes two years or more.

Stanislaw Kahl, 44, of Krakow, said he left Poland because he had been told by authorities that he would lose his job teaching animal physiology at the Academy of Agriculture in Krakow if he did not join the Communist Party.

He and his wife, Eva, a career counselor, and their 13-year-old son Jakub, want to go to the United States. In the meantime, they are sharing a small room with another family in Latina.

''But we are not complaining,'' he said. ''We are happy to be out of Poland. We expected hardships. We are like the American pioneers.''