The pope drops in at an interesting moment, and contemplating his image, his presence and his power is especially instructive just now. I mean instructive in terms of our own political and moral conditions, not his -- which is a subject I enthusiastically leave to others.

To start with, he comes at a time when our national leadership seems uncommonly unsure of itself, given to interminable public argument about how best to assert an authority it doesn't have, and also doesn't know how to acquire. Should our leaders try to reclaim the lapsed imperial style? Or is ostentatious folksiness -- gol' dang, we all put on our pants one leg at a time, and so forth -- the answer? Should people at the top identify with and try to protect our formal institutions? Or should they identify with those on the other side of the barricades, casting doubt -- and sometimes rocks -- on the strongholds of tradition and authority? Or what?

In these regards, Pope John Paul II is a study in success. My favorite story about him is that he caused great consternation by insisting, against scandalized advice, that he wanted a swimming pool built at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. You got the idea that the pope 1) refused to view swimming as an act that could affect, let alone destroy, his dignity, 2) at the same time did not view it as some kind of humanizing or popularizing hey-look-the-pope-is-swimming gambit, but 3) wanted a swimming pool for the simple, direct and authentic reason that he likes to swim.

This evident self-possession looks to be the style of a man who is comfortable with his values and the choices they dictate. I know I am leaving out a religious dimension here that is unfamiliar to me, and also that some of those choices have worldwide political and social consequences that many people, myself included, think are truly harmful. But I still think there is a wholly admirable and tragically rare aspect to this man: he exudes the authority of personal strength, belief and commitment in a way that practically no other living leader does. And this authority, clearly, does not depend on the orthodoxy and church law he is seeking to maintain. Rather, it comes from within the man, is the outcome of thousands of coices already made, and roosts comfortably in that place between insecurity and dumb arrogance where genuine leadership reposes.

The ability to embody and project authority is relevant to our condition in more ways than just the obvious one. This pope stands in an interesting, if dispiriting, contrast to American leaders at the moment. But he has also had -- and by virtue of this same quality -- a transforming effect on the way many Americans think about the things he represents. Two words, both beginning with P: a Polish Pope. Traces of fright, paranoia, snobbery and loutish humor that resided in the public mind have been diminished and, surely for some, obliterated by the reality of this man.

Reality is the key concept here. In a fair test with malignant fantasy it will win. The combined ethnic put-down and sectarian animus, a kind of generalized fear and loathing, is (unfortunately) so timely, given the great black-Jewish holy war of 1979, that it is worth noting what happened to it. It turned out to be frail. It got displaced. This displacement, incidentally, so far as anti-Catholic passion was concerned, was well under way before the emergence of Pope John Paul II. He just gave the thing a final kick.

It is in fact a measure of how far this country was Catholic. Great numbers of them thought he shouldn't be elected because he was Catholic.

The reality of Kennedy -- God knows, his flaws were not the result of excessive religious zeal or Vatican-mindedness -- along with the brief ministry of John XXIII and sea changes in church policy in this country and abroad had a devastating effect on the preconceptions. I don't want to pretend that there still isn't a great deal of anti-Catholic sentiment and anxiety in the land. But 20 years ago such a tour as John Paul's would have been unimaginable. The church-state/no-chasubles-on-public-property argument would have had a much larger sponsorship than Madalyn Murray O'Hair and friends and allies have been able to muster. Catholic politicians who had to run in districts without Catholic majorities would have been exceedingly skittish about how the pictures were taken and what the captions said.

Time, change, truth and, now, the bearing of this pope have confounded all that. On the routing of the Polish joke, I would say that John Paul II has had the principal impact. Polish -- ha ha ha. Stanley Kowalski in his undershirt (Polish national dress by the time the tin-pot culture had corrupted the Tennessee Williams drama) bellowing for "Stel-lah." It seems to be a necessary prop for our national sense of self and of well-being that we have at any given time an ethnic group we can characterize as being invincibly (and historically) stupid and cloddish -- give or take a Copernicus here and a Joseph Conrad there. Did you know that the Dutch used to be the Poles of Maerica -- that Polish jokes were Dutch jokes, some homegrown and some imported from England, before you were born? For instance, the now neutral Dutch treat -- meaning you have to pay for yourself, or Dutch courage -- the bravado of the drunk.

The elevation of John Paul II naturally didn't stop all the malicious fun, but it sure did inhibit and confound it almost out of existence. In other circles the experience would be called "consciousness raising" and that, in large part, is what this pope has already achieved for large numbers of Americans. His personal authority reminds us that it is still possible for strong and certain figures to lead. And it also demonstrates how mercifully vulnerable and subject to change our attitudes toward one another and the groups among us are.

Not to get too ecclesiastical about it, this changeability -- which clearly has a good side and a bad -- has a capacity both to save us and harm us. One set of tensions and prejudices diminishes. Another blossoms quickly, like an ugly night flower, in its place. When I observe the newer brands of ethnic mean-mindedness among us, I wonder whether we will ever settle into a mature, calm and accepting understanding of who we are as a people. This pope knows who he is. That is his strength.