"The Feast of Transfiguration is a day we celebrate the glory of Christ, so it is a beautiful day on which to die." said William Cardinal Baum at a hastily scheduled press conference late yesterday, as news of the death of Pope Paul VI spreaed through the Washington area.
"The pope always spoke with the greatest affection for Washington," continued Cardinal Baum. ". . . He was particularly interested in the racial relations in our country. He thought it of great importance to reconcile the races . . . He was a man profoundly aware, a man of profound compassion and gentleness."
"I'm stunned but we'rve been expecting it," said Deacon Godfrey Mosley as he prepared for afternoon mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral at Rhode Island Avenue near 17th Street NW. "The pope has been expecting his own death."
Elsewhere throughout the Washington area, leading Roman Catholics paid tribute to Pope Paul VI.
Many lay persons also reacted with surprise, grief and delicately couched speculation about the future of their church, generally considered the world's largest with an estimated 540 million followers.
"Oh my God, no! It's terrible!" exclaimed Maria E. Fernandez, a Chilean-born immigrant who lives in Arlington. She slapped her cheek and tears poured down her face as she added. "I'm a very devout Catholic. I feel very deeply involved with the church. He was such a great man."
Several hundred Catholics learned of the pontiff's death from an announcement made after they had arrived at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in northeast Washington, for a 4:30 p.m. mass.
"The example of Paul has touched all of us as Christians." proclaimed Monsignor Eugene Bilski, who announced the death during the mass. He added a prayer "that the holy spirit will guide (the church) during these days of transition."
"I usually have my car radio on, but not today," explained one woman as she descended the steps outside the shrine after mass. "Pope Paul is at peace now. My concern is for who will replace him."
Echoing that concern, several of the worshipers interviewed gently voiced their hope that the next pontiff would pursue more theologically liberal policies. "We would like to see more of John (the 23rd) and more of Vatican II," said one man.
Cardinal Baum said he would be going to Rome within a few days to participate in the funeral. He will be one of nine American cardinals in the conclave charged with lecting Pope Paul's successor.
The average American, said Cardinal Baum, will remember Pope Paul "with affection," and will look on his rejection of less restrictive birth control practices os "in service of life." The pope had shown an "ability to be faithful to the Catholic gospel, yet be able to find a way to adapt it," the Cardinal said.
Cardinal Baum said he was forbidden to discuss possible candidates to succeed Pope Paul, and he declined, too, to speculate on the probable nationality or policies of likely successors. The College of Cardinals must begin its selection process within 21 days and itself will carry out the Pope's role as head of the worldwide church in the interim.
"I am confident that history will record that he was one of the great leaders of the church down through the centuries," said Archbishop William Borders of Baltimore.
"He gave fatherly leadership at a time of change, emphasizing the fact the church cannot look within itself but must look out to get the gospel message proclaimed," said Archbishop Borders He said the pope had been instrumental in implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, including the replacement old liturgy with a new liturgy in modern national languages.
The Rev. Earl Brill, canon of the Washington Cathedral, a Protestant Episcopal church, said the pope would be missed by people of all faiths because of his work for ecumenism, the movement to unite the religious sects, and particularly the Christian sects, of the world.
"Paul continued the same kind of traditions (as Pope John XXIII) and he will be missed," declared Rev. Brill. "I hope his successor will follow the same path . . . His heart was in the right place and he was very diplomatic."
Cardinal Baum will say a special mass for the pope at noon today at St. Matthew's. Officials of the Washington Archdiocese said other churches in the area would also be remembering Paul in their masses today.
Also contributing to this story was Washington Post Staff Writer Diane Egner.