As head of a delegation of Polish bishops in Rome to consult with their compatriot, Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Jozef Glemp sounded a gloomy assessment and a grim note of warning. "Our fatherland is sick," he declared. "Poles are overcome with anger." Still, he added, "Poland must not become an arena for bloody conflict."

Once again, as so often before, the church that Glemp heads has become the rallying symbol in a nation of 36 million, 90 percent of whom are Catholic. The Primate has bluntly condemned both the military crackdown against the free trade union, Solidarity, and the government's suppression of human rights. Yet he faces a dilemma: He must avoid stirring the Poles into open rebellion, which could trigger civil war or even a Soviet invasion.

In contrast to his present prominence, Glemp, 52, was little known in his homeland before his elevation last year as Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw. Yet he came to his delicate task well prepared. For years he was the protégé and handpicked successor of the late Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, whose consummate diplomacy had kept the Polish church intact after the Communists seized power in 1947.

The new Primate was born in Inowroclaw, the son of a salt miner. During the Nazi occupation he was forced to work as a farm laborer. After the war he entered Poland's top seminary at Gniezno, where he made a small reputation as a track-and-field athlete. Ordained at 25, he spent two years as a parish priest before being sent to the Vatican's Lateran University, where he is recalled as a shy, studious young man. In six years he earned doctorates in canon and civil law and was admitted to the Holy Roman Rota, the Vatican court that decides marriage cases.

In 1969 Glemp was recalled to Warsaw by Wyszynski to be the Cardinal's private secretary. After Wyszynski's death last May, Glemp succeeded his mentor to become Poland's spiritual leader and youngest Primate ever. "He has a highly trained legal mind," a church intimate says. "He listens and takes time to make a decision but is not afraid to speak up." In John Paul II, Glemp has a powerful ally, but the Archbishop clearly is a spiritual force on his own. "He came to Rome to gain strength from the Pope," says a Vatican priest, "not to take orders or seek approval."