Students at the Catholic University of America, some in innovative attire and many popping bottles of champagne, celebrated their graduation at the university's 96th commencement ceremony yesterday outside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.

Elizabeth Topham Kennan, a former history professor at Catholic University and now president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., addressed the 729 undergraduate and 1,038 graduate students who received degrees from the university's nine schools.

"The footfalls of this century are ominous in the extreme," she told the students, citing recent examples of the war between Iran and Iraq and the civil war in Nicaragua. "We shall need courage of our own before we finish our passage from this century to the next."

If the passage is threatening, she said, "Let the deep strength of Catholic University come back to your minds . . . . Because we have been here, we know that truth is steadfast."

Kennan, who left Catholic University in 1978 to head Mount Holyoke, was one of four persons awarded honorary degrees yesterday.

The Rev. Walter J. Ong, university professor of humanities at St. Louis University and the author of 12 books; Adm. James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations, and Henry J. Knott Sr., chairman of the board of the Arundel Corp., a Baltimore construction company, also received honorary degrees for their contributions to academics, Catholicism and society.

Students reacted with mixed emotions to their graduation.

"My father says this is the biggest pay raise he's had in four years," said Julie Micallef, 21, whose cap was inscribed with the letters TGIO ("Thank God It's Over").

Micallef, who received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the School of Engineering and Architecture, shared three bottles of champagne with two friends during the ceremony, and said, "It's been one week of celebrations."

Mary O'Connor, 21, and Colleen Keegan, 22, both of Washington, augmented their academic gowns with black pointed witches' hats.

Andrew Giangreco of Fairfax said he came to watch his daughter receive a master's degree in nursing.

"I'm elated," he said. "She loves to work with children, and it's their world, not ours. If she can mould some kids, physically and mentally, that's my reward."