On a cold and damp night in Warsaw, a man took me to mass. He took me into the old quarter of the city, to a large church where many people had gathered. There were old women in babushkas and students in jeans, and at the end of the mass they all surged forward to the front of the church where they paid homage to a marshal of the old Polish Army -- the one who had beaten the Russians in the war of 1919-1920.

The marshal's hat lay on the stone floor and around it were arranged flowers. Students stared and women wept and then everyone went out into the night, collars up against the cold, and you were not sure whether what you had just seen was religious or political or both.

The night comes back to me now because of the visit of Pope Paul II. He was not in that church that night, not that I know, anyway, but he was a member of the Polish clergy -- an institution that has stood toe to toe with the Communist state and given up very little. He is coming here to the United States soon and already there is controversy. He would feel at home.

In philadelphia and Boston, the politicians have decided to honor this man by building altars with public funds so the pope can celebrate mass. Civil liberties organizations and spokesmen for some religious denominations have denounced these plans, calling them unconstitutional -- politics at its worst.

The critics have a point. The fact of the matter is that the mayors of both cities are seeking either reelection, as is the case with Kevin White in Boston, or possible election to another office, as is the case of Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia. In neither city are their positions likely to hurt them politically.

But there is something more at work here than what you might call crass pandering to the voters. There is the sense you get that to a lot of politi- cians and to a lot of people, the pope's visit is not about religion at all, not religion in the narrow sense of the word, but about something else. It's hard to know what to call it but maybe the best word is celebrity. They want to honor a man, an idea and to recognize in some way what he means to their constituents.

The end result is that the pope is being talked about as if he were a baseball star -- as if he were not, to some people, a controversial figure. This newspaper, for instance, is planning to honor the papal visit with a special section, treating the whole thing as it is was the bicentennial or something -- above controversy. This is meant as a compliment.

But it is not. The pope is a man and a priest and a leader of his church. He has positions. He is a man who stands for certain things, for profoundly felt political and religious beliefs and among them are some highly controversial stands on abortion, divorce and the role of women in his own church. There is no unanimity in these matters and to pretend there is, to pretend they don't exist, is not paying the pope the respect he deserves. It's like treating him as if he were the Queen of England -- all show and no substance.

The point here is not to quibble with the importance of the papal visit or to argue about the greatness of the man. The point, instead, is that to overlook what he stands for, to ignore his beliefs and the religious nature of them, is to trivialize him, to turn him into some sort of benevolent secular Santa Claus figure -- vaguely religious but lovable above all other things.

Now we go back to that church at Warsaw. To have been there, and to other churches, to have gone to the shrine of the martyred monk Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz, is to appreciate that this man, this pope, stands for something and that it mocks his life and his accomplishments to fudge it all -- to pretend that he is so bland a figure that public funds can be used in his honor. He is first and foremost a religious figure. They know this in Moscow. It's time they knew it in Boston and Philadelphia.