He was Jewish, he said, and he'd only heard the news a few minutes earlier, but there he was walking up the steps of St. Matthew's Cathedral for memorial mass for the dead pope.

"I'm absolutely stunned," said Bert Rova. "I am Italian, and I had looked to him as a real hope for reconciliation among the Italian people. He had a tremendous sense of warmth and compassion, and at the common level that people could relate to. And even though I'm Jewish, I wanted to come to the mass because . . . because . . ."

He faltered, searching vainly for the explanation that defied rational thought, and said simply, "I don't know why," and stepped pensively into the cathedral.

In a way, the sudden death of Pope John Paul I seemed to affect people more deeply, more profoundly, than that of his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, less than two months earlier. Paul was ailing, almost 81, and had finished the course. But John Paul was only 65, his papacy off to a glowing start.

"Even though he was in for only 34 days, we all felt like we'd lost a good friend," observed the Rev. William Silk of St. Mary's Church in Rockville. "It was almost like we were cheated out of knowing him better."

At parishes around the area as well as at St. Matthew's, the word most commonly heard was "shock." But beyond the shock was the question inevitably generated by death: "Why?"

That's the question I've been asking myself ever since I heard," said Cardinal William W. Baum, who celebrated the noon mass for the pope at St. Matthew's.

It has been, said the cardinal, "a great shock. It is hard to take it in." For the answer to "why?," he said, he could only quote God's words: "You must rely on My power, My mercy." "You must put your trust in the hands of God," the cardinal said. "That's the lesson from this."

"I started getting calls at 3 o'clock in the morning," said the Rev. William Norvel, pastor of St. Benedict the Moor parish, hard by Kennedy Stadium. "What is the Lord trying to tell us?' one lady asked me. I don't have an answer at the moment. We have to just wait and see."

It is sound Christian doctrine that God continues to reveal Himself to mankind through his actions in everyday life, but that man must discern what these actions mean. Some of the mourners for the pope whom they had loved so quickly and lost so soon had their own ideas of what God was communicating by the pope's sudden death.

"The Man" - his eyes glanced heavenward - "is saying something to us," said Robert L. Robinson of the Black Catholic Lay Caucus. "He's telling us to get right with Him. There's too much racism, too much double-crossing and all going on."

Toni Stephens, standing outside the cathedral door, smiled and greeted worshipers as they entered.

"It's God's time," she said earnestly. "The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is coming - it's coming in my lifetime. He's trying to bring all of us sinners to repentance."

Karen Michaelson, a Protestant, thought for a long time after being asked what the death of Pope John Paul meant.

"If you assume that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit," she said finally, "then you have wonder very deeply what God intended by taking him so soon." The papal conclave calls for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in electing a pope.

In his brief homily, the cardinal seemed to wrestle publicly with the question of why. At times his words seemed accusatory, just a hair this side of anger with God.

"Once again, in such a short time, You have called to Yourself the earthly pastor of Your church," he said. "Once again Your flock looks at You, awed, saddened, asking, waiting."

But in the end, there was acceptance of the loss.

"We praise you, we bless you, we thank you for this example of your pastoral solicitude for us, we believe in you, we trust in you, we love you," he said. "You are our high priest."

Other segments of the religious community also reacted to the pope's death. Nancy Lang, president of the Washington Chapter of the American Jewish Committee recalled that "one of his last significant acts was to pray for 'the security of Israel' on the eve of the Camp David summit meeting."

Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker scheduled a special "service of intention" for the late pope at the Washington Cathedral Sunday at 11 a.m. The Rev. Avery Dulles, priest-theologian at Catholic University, will be the speaker.