A genial and smiling Bishop-elect John Richard Keating came to Northern Virginia yesterday to visit the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which he will take over officially on Aug. 4.

"I'm here to pay my respects to the people I'm going to be serving," Keating said on arrival yesterday morning at National Airport, where he was met by a delegation of diocesan priests.

His daylong visit included calls at the chancery office in Arlington, lunch with the apostolic delegate at his residence in Washington, a visit to the cathedral in Arlington and a picnic with diocesan priests last night at St. Leo's parish in Fairfax. There were no plans to include any lay Catholics in the events, although they seemed eager to meet their new shepherd.

"I think there's a lot of excitement" about Keating, who has been vicar general and chancellor of the Chicago archdiocese, said Antoinette Breslin of Alexandria, state coordinator of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas . "I feel sure he's very well qualified. Of course I miss my old bishop. He was a good friend and I learned to understand him."

Keating, 48, succeeds Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, who was transferred earlier this year to Allentown, Pa. Welsh's conservative views clashed with some Northern Virginia Catholics during his nine-year tenure. Many of the former dissidents are pleased by Keating's appointment.

"From all I read and all I hear, he looks like a good candidate," said Edward Conway Jr., of Holy Spirit parish in Annandale. Conway praised the new bishop as "the guy to calm troubled waters and bring us together again."

"It sounds to me like somebody loved us enough to give us somebody good. It seems like he's what we need," said Ruth Fitzpatrick, a Catholic activist who also belongs to Holy Spirit parish.

"He looks like a nice Irish Catholic boy, though I don't know if that's a compliment anymore," observed Elaine Sonosky of Good Shepherd Parish near Mount Vernon.

Some parishioners of Good Shepherd, a pioneer in liturgical and parish life-style reforms recommended by the Second Vatican Council, clashed sharply with Welsh only weeks after his installation. Sonosky said Chicago friends have given Keating universally good marks, though she said she wondered how the Chicago churchman would adapt to "the middle class, homogeneous, white church" of Northern Virginia.

Only one problem has emerged so far: Keating, who celebrates mass, hears confessions and takes his turn preaching at a suburban Chicago parish in addition to his archdiocesan administrative duties, tries to keep Wednesday afternoons clear to play golf.

Yesterday he learned that in Arlington, Tuesday is golf day for priests. "I think we can work that out," the bishop-elect said with a grin.