As soon as the meeting ended with a prayer, the members of St Bernadette's Holy Name Society cracked out the poker cards, cluttered the tables with nickels and dimes, popped open the beer cans and lighted their pipes and cigarettes.
But before the poker got too intense or the beer had a chance to take effect, Bernie Bernier, one of the men's service and social society's stalwarts, made the rounds through the maze of poker tables in the church basement. He clutched a little slip of paper in his hand, signing up volunteers for the bus committee to get the church parishioners to the Oct. 7 mass on the Mall that will be celebrated by Pope John Paul II.
In one corner of the room, where the stern glare of the late monsignor William Sticker's portrait loomed overhead, the poker table conversation turned to the pontiff's imminent visit.
"That John Paul, he's got a lot of smarts," said Neal Ford as he shoved his 20 cents into the pot at the center of the table. Cigarette smoke curled around his head.
"The wife, she's going to take a hotel room at the Washington Hotel for two days . . . me? I'll be watching the football game . . .."
Then, without pause, Neal proudly announced, "Three sixes," slapped down the winning cards and gathered in the pile of coins.
This parish in Silver Spring is consumed with one thought these days and understandably so. In the homes, at the church's elementary school, at mass on Sunday, even at the basement gatherings of the Holy Name Society, the talk is of a man thousands of miles away who somehow seems as close and as real to these people as a grandfather.
Ever since the day last month when the pope's visit to Washington was announced, the 1,500 parishioners of St Bernadette's have been infused with a new energy as they prepare, like some great extended family, to greet their spirtual leader.
For Sister Mary Walburga, principal of the church school, word of the pope's visit inspired her to take to the telephone immediately and order an 18-by-22-inch color photograph of the pontiff to hang in the school lobby; draped by the papal and American flags.
Sister Ann Dougherty was swiftly dispatched to find a poster-size picture of the pope to place on the billboard outside the school with a banner pronouncing, "Welcome Pope John Paul."
At Fontana's Bowlarama, a few blocks down University Boulevard from the church, Bernier hardly let his men -- as he calls them -- get out their bowling balls last Thursday night before he was giving out orders for them to stand outside the church Sunday to find out how many folks will be needing bus service to the Mall.
And, starting next week, all St. Bernadette's schoolchildren and those in the catechism classes will begin intensive lessons on Pope John Paul and his role in the Catholic Church.
"Do you think," asked Mary Ann McGillicuddy, a church volunteer, "the pope knows all this is going on?"
Of all the parishes in metropolitan Washington, St. Bernadette's in the Four Corners section of Silver Spring is one of the most actively involved in preparing for the pope's visit here Oct. 6 and 7. It mobilized quickly under the firm guidance of its pastor, Monsignor Edward E. Foley, an amiable man with the sonorous voice of a radio announcer.
Monsignor Foley is the cochairman of the cardinal's committee on the pope;s visit. It is not simply chance, some church observers say, that he assumed that assignment and that St. Bernadette's was chosen as the site of the Papal Information Center. Foley is a close associate of Cardinal William Baum, some say he is eager to move upward in the church hierarchy, and he does not mind making his parish a showcase whenever possible.
It is for his parishioners, Foley said, that he does all this. "What I've tried to do is give the parish opportunities to do things."
And so, last month, the monsignor's study in the rectory was converted into a bustling phone bank, which his parishoners operate 12 hours a day. They are women and men like Anna Yowaiski, whose children, all grown now, attended St. Bernadette's school; Tom Roszkowski, who comes in on Wednesdays, his day off from his job at Woodward and Lothrop's; Trish McGillan, a 21-year-old nurse who had drifted from the church but was drawn back to contribute somehow to the pope's visit.
Since it opened in 1958, the attractive, two-story, tan brick St. Bernadette's Church has drawn a membership that is predominantly white and middle class. The men, for the most part, hold jobs with the county or federal governments. Many of the women do not work for pay, but devote their time to the home and family.
They live in the neighborhoods that can be found on all four sides of the busy intersection of University Boulevard and Colesville Road, just to the north of the Capital Beltway. Theirs are the tidy, red brick colonial homes built during World War II and the newer town houses of subdivisions such as Burnt Mills. The neighborhoods are alive with the sounds of children's voices, go-carts, motorcycles, power lawnmowers, electric hedge clippers and the distant whine of trucks moving along the highways.
To step inside St. Bernadette's is to step back to an earlier period of the Catholic church -- a time when churches were not so concerned about membership losses and were vibrant parts of community and family life. Said Mary Roszkowski, a young mother of three: "We're a very strong parish, spiritually."
Indeed, the daily mass at 8 a.m. draws a mix of about 30 to 40 working men, young mothers and retired persons. Most parishioners get up to receive communion at Sunday mass. Prayer and scripture study groups meet weekly and are well attended.
At many Catholic churches, holy name societies have long since dissolved because the organizations could no longer attract enough young men. St. Bernadette's, however, counts about 200 men in its Holy Name Society. The women's sodality, another traditional Catholic organization, has 500 members.
In every respect, the brand of Catholicism practiced at St. Bernadette's is traditional. Until four years ago, the main Sunday mass was still said in Latin. Today, many parishioners still kneel at the alter to receive communion, rather than stand, as is the more popular practice these days. Many still take communion from a priest, on their tongue, rather than in their own hands.
Some Catholic churches are rocked by disputes about how much money should be spent for the poor. Not so at St. Bernadette's. Here, one of the most spirited arguments in recent months concerned whether the Holy Name Society would still be allowed to sing "Holy God We Praise Thy Name" at the end of the mass.
Still, the parishoners of St. Bernadette's are not so regimented that they do not criticize. Some are even upset about some aspects of the pope's visit, particularly the fact that there is only one major event -- the mass on the Mall -- planned for the laity.
"The laity is really getting the shaft," said Frank Bombara as he chatted with friends after a recent Holy Name Society meeting. "At Catholic University, where I was going to see the pope, I find out it will be roped off and only the nuns are going."
"Yeah," chimed in a voice from behind. "All these diplomatic groups get to see him, but if we want to, we've got to get caught in the mob."
"Look, Frank," said Tom Roszkowski from across the table. "You're talking about a human being. He can't be in all places at all times . . . Being of Polish heritage, I was just proud as hell a Polack made it and there ain't no way to keep me away from the Mall."