They gathered around the dining room table and rolled up their shirtsleeves. Before them were charts and street maps and lists of names, and they wore plastic buttons bearing the face of the man they were working for.

It might have been a scene from an old-fashioned political strategy session, except the face on the buttons was that of Pope John Paul II and the men in the Bethesda home Tuesday night were Catholic parishioners feverishly planning where to position marshals at sites the pope will visit here this weekend.

At the same time, over in a dusty studio in Alexandria, sculptor Jarbo Rolph and some helpers had been working around the clock under three bare electric bulbs to finish the "family of man" relief that will form the backdrop for the pope's platform at the Sunday mass on the Mall.

Then, yesterday morning at the Mall, women volunteers from various parishes exuberantly unloaded from trailer trucks 7,000 chrysanthemums and 900 Japanese holly plants that will adorn the platform where the pope will say mass.

Meanwhile in another corner of the Mall; Father Ronald Jameson and some other priests planning the liturgy for the Sunday mass practiced the ceremony.

All over the Washington area, in homes and churches, offices and dusty workshops, thousands of Catholics are frantically working to complete last-minute preparations for the historic event. For them it has become a week of dry runs, endless rehearsals and final polishings as they gear up for the climax to the pope's pastoral pilgrimage to the United States.

It is an effort involving dozens of government agencies, from sanitation to the Secret Service -- and it is an event in which both bishop and altar boy will have a part.

Just about everyone involved in any way with the visit seems to be infected with what one called "pope fever." It seems to have touched not only the parish faithful but also those whose Catholicism is mainly a memory.

Bob Manassan, an Alexandria architect who was helping Rolph sand down the surface of his sculpture Tuesday night around midnight, says he hasn't been to church in 15 years. "But," he quipped, smiling broadly, "I figured this would get me a reserved seat" at the Mall mass.

Then he laughed, acknowledging that it wouldn't.

When Betty Lane volunteered her time to help out at the Mall site, she thought it would just mean arranging the flowers. But Lane, a parishioner at -- appropriately enough -- Little Flower Church -- soon learned it meant unloading the wet, muddy plants.

"But I'm happy to do it for the pope," she said as mud from one pot dripped onto her light tan pants.

Volunteers have manned the dozens of committees that have planned every detail of the pope's visit, from what songs should be sung at the Mall mass, to the intricate logistics of busing the mass participants.

In addition, the architects -- Smith Segretti Tepper -- and several of the artisans involved here donated their services.

Monsignor David E. Foley, one of the co-chairmen of the pope's visit, said most of the arrangements for the event are by now "cast in concrete." But a few things remain unfinished, like the platform for the mass.

Yesterday, architect Robert Smith was out visiting the construction site as hammers beat in rhythm to the accompanying hum of buzz saws and workers scrambled on the scaffolding to attach some roof boards.

"It's safe to say everything will be finished by Saturday morning," Smith said. "We are absolutely delighted with the cooperation everyone has given."

Ronald P. Renaldi, president of Arlington Woodworking, said his three Italian-born cabinet makers have finished the chair, lectern and altar.

But they probably won't be put into place at the Mall until Saturday, Smith said. Security will be heavy, he added.

Frederick Hart, another local sculptor, said he has finished the processional crucifix cross. "It's not like anything you've ever seen," Hart said with true pride of creation. The figure of Christ on the cross, he said, "looks like it's facing you when you're standing in front of it. When you walk past it, it looks like it's turning toward you."

The chalice for the communion wine and the plate for the communion wafers -- both designed by Darrell Acree -- are also ready.

Things are quite different though, for Rolph, the sculptor. "It has just been an around-the-clock thing to keep ahead, to keep the work going," he said as he knelt over his work; a pair of goggles and a dust mark over his face. "Sometimes it's like a circus here."