In the "Little Italy" of Boston's North End, they have put out huge welcome signs ("Viva II Papa") and moved the statue of St. Agrippina to the sidewalk for a passing papal blessing.

At Kosciusko Circle, where the banners say "Witamy Jan Paval II," the parishioners of Our Lady of Czestochowa are readying the bright red Polish costumes they will wear when the papal motorcade passes by.

In South Boston, the proprietor of Kelly's Clover Leaf Pub has put up a friendly "Cead Mile Failte JP II" on the wall and in a Hispanic parish in Roxbury, the schoolchildren have painted the message "Hola Juan Pablo Dos" along the route.

The neighborhoods of Boston, with a fervor that shows up in signs and banners on windows and housetops throughout the city, are ready to greet the patriarch of their church.

At 3:30 Monday afternoon, if events proceed in reasonable accord with the minutely programmed schedule, the papal motorcade will emerge from the airport tunnel beneath Boston Harbor into the heart of the city, and Pope John Paul II will come face to face with the American melting pot.

The pope has asked to see every facet of American Catholicism during his week in the United States. He will come close to fulfilling that wish Monday during the first hour of his first visit to this country as pope.

Boston, a place shot through with ethnic consciousness long before the concept became fashionable elsewhere, is not so much a city as a collection, not always harmonious, of numerous national communities.

But there is a common broth that binds this rich ethnic stew: the Roman Catholic Church.

Boston is an enthusiastically Catholic town, a place where daily mass-going and weekly confession are still common habits, where people of every age and status talk about the K of C and the CCD with the easy familiarity of a Washingtonian discussing the SEC or the USDA.

About 60 percent of Boston's adult population is Roman Catholic, a concentration second only to Chicago. Some aspects of life here -- politics, for example -- are just about completely dominated by members of John Paul's church.

Bostonians, accordingly, are simply enraptured with the thought of a pope traveling through their streets. "For a lot of our people," says Father John Abruzzese, of St. Joseph's, a mixed Irish-Italian parish, "this is the biggest thing ever.

"Some of our women get tears in their eyes whenever we talk about it. You have to put yourself in the position of an older person who has finally realized that she'll never get to Rome to see the Holy Father -- and now he's coming here."

The segment of Boston that seems most excited is the Polish community, which has entertained Karol Wojtyla twice before and feels a personal as well as proprietary affection for the Polish pontiff.

It is not widely known outside of Boston's Polish neighborhoods that this pope, in addition to being the "Vicar of Christ" and the "Successor to St. Peter," is also the "Honorary State Auditor of Massachusetts."

That title was bestowed on Wojtyla, then the archbishop of Krakow, during his visit here in 1969 by Thaddeus Buzcko, then as now the official state auditor and the state's ranking Polish politician.

Looking back now on that visit, made 10 years ago this week, Buzcko smiles at the ironies.

"We had this guy, same guy, right here in Boston and I couldn't get a word one in the media about it," Buzcko said the other day. "Now, my phone won't stop ringing and the whole town's going nuts."

Like other officeholders here, Buzcko is not sure whether the papal visit will be boon or bane for political careers.

"See, the [Boston] Herald ran this story saying Ted Buzcko's the pope's best friend in Boston, and I thought, hey, that's great," Buzcko said."But now I'm getting hundreds of people asking me for tickets to get down front at the mass, and I can't help because the only ticket I got is my own."

Everyone agrees, though, that the visit is a major political event, one that reflects the emergence of the church as a -- or perhaps the -- major social force here.

The pope's motorcade will trace, symbolically, the path Boston Catholics have followed over the past century.

His first stop, for a meeting with priests, will be at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, a granite fortress erected in the South End a century ago, when Boston Catholics were a minority isolated in immigrant ghettos.

From there, the pope will wind through the downtown core to an outdoor altar on Boston Common, just down Beacon Hill from City Hall and the state capitol, both now firmly in the hands of Catholic politicians.

For most of its long history, the city was dominated, politically and otherwise, by a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon elite -- the Lowells, Lodges, Cabots and other proper Bostonians -- and in some areas that element still holds sway.

The city council is populated with names like O'Neill and Langone and DiCara, but the board of directors of the city's biggest bank is heavy with the old Brahmin nomenclature: Hill, Brown, Emerson, Holmes, Pierce.

In politics, though, Catholics prevail. Since 1905, when John F. Fitzgerald charmed his way into City Hall, the mayor's office

Catholic dominance in politics was settled once and for all in 1952

Catholid dominance in politics was settled once and for all in 1952 when Fitzgerald's grandson and namesake, John F. Kennedy, defeated the last great Brahmin politician, Henry Cabot Lodge, in a race for the U.S. Senate.

The youngest Kennedy, Teddy, delivered the coup de grace 10 years later when he swamped one George Cabot Lodge, Henry's son, in another Senate race.

Thus civil libertarians here didn't get far when they protested the use of city money to provide security services for the papal visit.

A city council committee chairman ruled that testimony from Protestants about church-state separation was "not germane" to the issue. No such objection was raised when a priest testified that failure to appropriate the money would violate the pope's religious freedom.

Nary a soul was surprised when the council voted unanimously to spend a half-million dollars to ensure the pope's safety. (The church itself, however, will cover expenses for everything else.)

Still, there are a few here who are overtly unimpressed by an event that is routinely described in newspaper and broadcast outlets as a "once-in-a-lifetime visit."

Some callers to the talk shows declared themselves sick and tird of papal news long before John Paul arrived. A black politician complained that the motorcade will keep blacks "isolated and imprisoned in their own wards" Monday afternoon.

(Black leaders here called for a march on the common Monday, which has been declared a state holiday, to coincide with the papal mass. Its sponsors said the march was organized to protest recent acts against blacks including the paralysis by gunshot Friday of a 16-year-old high school football player during a scrimmage in predominantly white Charlestown. Mayor Kevin White said the shooting was "apparently racially motivated." Police arrested three white youths late Saturday and early Sunday in connection with the sniping incident.)

Satire, too, has raised its inevitable head. A local band has recorded a song, "Let's Go See the Pope," to the tune of the rock classic "Let's Go To the Hop," making fun of the hoopla surrounding this day.

Leaders of other religious groups, though, are enthusiastic about the pope's visit. Protestant and Jewish congregations have contributed money to offset the archdiocese's expenses, and a variety of ecumenical activities is planned.

Jews have had to be particularly patient. The pope's coming has largely overshadowed observance of Yom Kippur.

A year ago Rabbi Frank Waldorf reserved a downtown hall for his temple's service. Last week he was told that the needs of those in charge of papal security have made the hall inaccessible.

"I got a call," the rabbi said, "and they asked us if we were willing to change the day of the event."

Waldorf has taken the inconvenience to his congregation in good spirit because he realizes that the pope's trip has sparked extraordinary reactions from many Bostonians.

There was the clever meterologist who checked his instruments, found indications of clear weather, and came up with the perfect one-word weather forecast: "Divine."

And then there is the imposing platform on Boston Common where the pope Monday afternoon will celebrate mass before the multitudes.

It is a graceful gleaming white construct, with 60-foot beams supporting a white and yellow awning that protects an altar carpeted in deep red and surrounding by vases of bright yellow chrysanthemums.

The platform doesn't look like much in photographs, but viewed from the top of Beacon Hill it is something quite beautiful -- amazingly so when one considers that it did not exist at all 10 days ago.

One could almost call it a miracle. But then, hundreds of thousands of Boston Catholics are willing to place this entire day in that category.