There ought to be at least a temporary quietus on curses against television after its coverage of Pope John Paul II's visit to the United States. Television behaved beautifully, performed admirably, and made it possible for more Americans than ever in history to see one of the world's most influential spirtual leaders.

It became, at least for some, a spiritual medium. Great events simultaneously shared give television a reason for being, and this one in particular reminded us why we actually need networks, strange as that sentiment might sound.

In television terms, Pope John Paul II will be remembered in part as one who squelched chatterboxes and stymied smart-alecks among the press corps on the air. Coverage was respectful yet thorough; even the more notoriously blabby of correspondents appeared awed into discretion.

Most of the pontificating was left to the pontiff. And since he himself proved contagiously good-humored and accessible -- our mellowest pope since John XXIII -- the week-long coverage also was marked by instances of welcome warmth and ebullience. The pope sure knows how to work a crowd, and he came across on television as what is commonly called a natural.

The week began with a bad omen. On NBC's "Prime Time Sunday" Sept. 30, a reporter in Ireland said that at one of the spots visited by the pope there the crowd bid adieu to the papal helicopter by singing "Now Is the Hour (That We Must Say Goodbye)" as it lifted off. It was a fairly enchanting juxtaposition of sight and sound, but the chorus had barely sung "Now is the" before they were cut off so we could return to Tom Snyder in New York for another game of eyebrow pong.

But the omen proved misleading, and the week ended happily yesterday with a celebration of mass on the Mall, televised in its entirety by ABC, the only network at that moment without a football game. The thing about a mass is that even networks have trouble interrupting or talking during one, especially when a pope is giving it.

As during the week, reporters knew just how to handle protests that, inevitably, accompanied the pope's visit, neither over nor underemphasizing them. Yesterday's remarks at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception by Sister Theresa Kane -- concerning feminist grievances in the church -- was all the more dramatic for being unexpected. Ceremonial parts of the tour had previously been enlivened only through the grace of the pope's sense of humor.

Television does not do well by speeches and ceremonies; grandeur is lost on it. Thus a wide UPI photograph of the Pope facing huge Chicago crowds had more impact than TV pictures of the same event. But with close-ups of the pope and his faithful, with shots of people caught in reverent or just unguarded moments, TV made something manageable out of something monumental.

Because most network correspondents knew enough to step back out of the way, and because TV camera technology now affords the medium more flexibility than ever before, the papal visit may have been as personal an experience for millions watching at home as it was for millions attending in person. The millions at home, for the most part, got a better view. CBS News provided the best coverage overall, ABC probably the most, and NBC its usual excellent work. All the crowd shots and parades may have blurred in the memory by now, and became numbing by Sunday -- the strangely anticlimactic Washington portion of the tour -- but the networks were attentive about picking what the pope would call "human persons" out of those crowds and giving huge gatherings individual dimensions.

NBC News reporter Linda Ellerbee typified the best of coverage early in the week when she interviewed a little boy and an old woman, both equally ecstatic, before they saw the pope's motorcade in New York, and then immediately afterward. Cameras caught their glowing reactions precisely as the pope passed them. Ellerbee did a similarly commendable piece with a farm couple in Iowa, and CBS News showed how one Des Moines family got ready for the visit in their own way.

These American vignettes gave people at home a satisfying idea of what the papal visit meant to those experiencing it firsthand.

Perhaps the choicest reactions of all was recorded for the CBS Friday Morning newscast and later made available to CBS affiliates. A chipper, red-haired woman in Philadelphia expressed her high hopes that the pope would stop his car and bless her. But later, after the motorcade passed -- "He went zoom!" -- she expressed her disappointment by saying, "Damn, I did want to get blessed!"

Although Bob Schieffer mistakenly introduced this segment as originating from "St. Agnew's" cathedral (it was St. Agnes), that four-minute essay was a model of its kind, cutting between a student band playing, of all things, "The Muppet Show Theme," and the lady with the high expectations. That the piece was over in a flash conveyed the way the pope appeared and disappeared for the dear woman. And thousands and thousands of others.

On Wednesday's CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the news of the day was stopped in its tracks to allow for a montage of "informal, spontaneous" highlights of the pope's trip; John Paul stopping to pick up a little boy in front of St. Matthew's, or telling New Yorkers that the rainy day of their meeting was "not the best."

Even if one attached no particular symbolism to the visit of the pope, it was hard to look at all the evidence on television and not agree with CBS commentator Andrew Rooney that the mood of the crowds suggested "we may not be as rotten as we thought we were, after all."

Occasionally, those who imagine themselves unusually eloquent gummed up the works with overdramatization. ABC's Frank Reynolds, the Polonius of television news, ended one nights special report with the observation that the pope's rapport with the young provided "a good lesson" to the nation. This was an observation best left to viewers, but Reynolds can rarely resist the urge to sermonize.

In Washington, local TV news people tended toward the gaudier style of reportage as well. WRC-TV's Kelly Burke, determined to repeat the word "unique" as often as possible, later interpreted the pope's gestures as "touching other people so they can get in touch with their own feelings." He must have confused the pope with Werner Erhard.

The promo-seltzer addiction of local TV news outfits got awfully annoying at times. Channel 5, which predictable, had the sloppiest coverage, greeted the pope at Andrews Air Force Base with the cumbersome legend "CHANNEL 5 LIVE" continually imprinted on the screen, so that at times the "5" was superimposed right over His Holiness' face. Surely they could have relaxed the lust to self-advertise for a few minutes.

Similarly, while it was tastefulness itself for CBS to open its late-night report on Thursday with Luciano Pavarotti singing (one chorus of) "Ave Maria" for the pope in Chicago, it was a trifle unseemly to close the next morning's early newscast by running the credits over the same tape footage. ABC News let Pavarotti sing both choruses of the hymn in its late report Wednesday.

Other local reporters who didn't precisely rise to the challenge and spirit of the occasion include Channel 4's Jim Vance, who kept reaching for ways in which to marvel aloud about the pope's humanity, when it was clear enough from pictures of his beneficent and forgiving face. Jim Clarke of Channel 7 went up in the station's tirelessly trumpeted "Skywatch 7" helicopter to declare John Paul II the "superstar pope," as if his popularity needed the benediction of silly show-business terminology.

Public television had promised more hours of coverage than the commerical networks. Its Thursday afternoon live coverage of the Iowa visit was visually outstanding but plagued with overly talkative commentators, one of whom roared, as the pope's helicopter landed, that he feared his voice would be drowned out by its motor. This was a catastrophe devoutly to be wished.

At the unfailingly quixotic Channel 26 in Washington, a decision was made to supply PBS stations with live coverage of yesterday's Washington activities bjuxtaposition of sight and sound, but the chorus had barely sung "Now is the" before they were cut off so we could return to Tom Snyder in New York for another game of eyebrow pong.

But the omen proved misleading, and the week ended happily yesterday with a celebration of mass on the Mall, televised in its entirety by ABC, the only network at that moment without a football game. The thing about a mass is that even networks have trouble interrupting or talking during one, especially when a pope is giving it.

As during the week, reporters knew just