ON THE DAY the pope was shot, there was a mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. It is the place where John Fitzgerald Kennedy's remains rested before burial at Arlington and it was fitting that the mass for the pope was said there. It is not to much to say that the pope is to Poland what Kennedy was to America -- a leader, a symbol and, yesterday, nearly a legacy.

Nothing focuses a life like a close brush with death. It does that for the person who, like the pope, was shot, and it does it for others who come to the cathedral like some did to think about the pope -- to pray for him, certainly, but to think also of the sort of pope he has been.

He has been a friendly pope, a traveling pope, a smiling pope and a conservative pope but, most of all, he has been a Polish pope. That is rare enough, but it is something of a miracle that it has happened now -- now that Poland is once again struggling to break free. This was acknowledged in a way when visitors to the Polish Embassy asked about the pope. It's hard to imagine that an Italian pope would be considered as much as a national figure as a religious one and its hard to imagine that the embassy would be asked about him. This pope, though, is special.

In measuring this pope, in wondering what would be lost and what would be gained, it is not religion that comes to mind. It is politics. Pope John Paul II is the 263rd successor to St. Peter. There will always be a pope. There will be another pope.

But there may not be another Polish pope. Not soon anyway. Not when it counts. There will not be a pope who is living aspiration of the Polish people, who is their pride, their man on the outside who will watch, as the world will watch, if the Soviets attempt to snuff out their revolution and who will tell the world of the outrage committed. He is like someone hoisted over the wall, someone who has escaped. There would be no silencing him, no stopping the wail of protest he would lead if his Poland was trampled.

To call him a Polish pope is not merely to say that he is from Poland. It is a way of looking at the world, of operating. It helps account for why he is theologically conservative, speaks in behalf of social activism, yet tells his priests, as he did in South America, to stay out of politics. He comes from the underdog church, the church that is not the establishment or even linked to it, but is the equivalent of the political opposition. It is a church that has no parallel in America. In Poland, most people go to church for religious reasons but some people also go as a way of expressing nationalsim and some do it to show dissent. In Poland, the young rebel is going to church.

Think of that. Imagine the kids in a Warsaw cathedral mimicking the West but doing it late. Their hair is long when it is already being worn short here and their jeans are obviously not western and their walk, their gait, is learned not from life, but from movies and television. They are always off a beat. One night they jammed a church and they sang the hymns and then, along with the old ladies, they pushed to the front of the cathedral where the cap of a Polish general who beat the Russians in battle lay on the floor. It was impossible to say where religion let off and nationalism began.

This pope is Karol Wojtyla. He is a Pole in his face, in his smile, in his birth and in his ability to deal with the Soviets -- to confront and yet not to confront. It is an art that the Polish Catholic Church has perfected and it is this pope who stands symbolically and yet also substantively between the Soviet Union and the liberalized Soviet Union and the liberalized Poland it so obviously abhors.

So yesterday, some people went to the cathedral to honor a religious leader and some people even went to the Polish Embassy and asked politely after a native son, but maybe it was only down the street at the Soviet Embassy that this Pope was really appreciated. It was Stalin who once dismissed the Papacy with the question, "How many divisions has the pope?" When it comes to John Paul II, the world nearly found out that the question is misstated. It's not how many he has that matters. It's how many he can stop.