The pope beckoned, and instantly a bewildered little girl was swept off her feet, handed gently upward from a joyous crowd of 20,000 school children at Madison Square Garden this morning, finally reaching his loving hands. He embraced her as his own and, for a few moments, placed her above him on the top of his truck.

The shrill thunder of applause, of excitement about the man and the gesture reverberated through the hall. These children had heard that the pope did such things. Now, they had seen it. Boys and girls wept.

The special essence that Pope John Paul II has brought to America -- not so much the message of his religion and his vision of the world as the power and warmth of his personality -- had been brought home once again with this one simple gesture.

The first days of John Paul's week-long tour through the United States have been a triumph of such gestures, both subtle and dramatic, revealing him to an often-cynical nation as one of the world's most charismatic leaders. In the midst of any gathering, he generates a unique intimacy.

Nowhere was his unique manner with crowds more evident than at Madison Square Garden this morning. There, he managed to win over his young audience in a way that no rock star ever managed to do. The moment he came into view in a small white flatbed truck, the crowd exploded in cheers that grew louder by the second as he strolled up to the dais.

John Paul became one with those in his presence. He sang with them "Day by Day" from the musical "Godspell," watched a sound and light show celebrating youth and happily accepted the gifts of American youth -- a pair of blue jeans, a guitar and a T-shirt with a "Big Apple" slogan.

The cheers and the whistles went on and on as the pope waited to speak. Finally, he grinned broadly, rocked back in his chair, and began uttering loud and cheerful sounds into the microphone.

"Whooh, whooh," shouted the pope.

"Whooh, whooh," came the reply from the school children.

"Whooh, hee, whooh," answered the pontiff.

For several minutes, the Garden rocked with the exuberant clamor of a band of children and their loving pope sharing a joyous occasion. The only person in the building who wanted it to stop, it seemed, was Cardinal Terence Cooke, whose concern was that the pope was running behind schedule.

After Cooke whispered in the pope's ear, John Paul turned again to his audience and said most kindly: "We shall destroy the program."

"He's really down to earth," ssia Madeleine Giordani, a high school student from Brooklyn. "He's someone we can relate to."

And these children were people whom the pope could really relate to as well. As one official of the archdiocese put it: "He feeds off this stuff."

An actor as a young man, John Paul clearly has a keen sense of drama and timing, yet his every move and gesture appear natural and spontaneous.

He conducts crowds. At Yankee Stadium, his waves to 80,000 faithful suggested a maestro directing a symphony of applause into a deafening crescendo.

And then he reaches out to the individual. A priest, nearly overcome by heat and nerves as he conducted a choir during the papal services at St. Patrick's Cathedral yesterday, suddenly found the sweat wiped from his brow by the pope himself. A young monsignor in Harlem, bending to kiss the ring of the pontiff, was lifted to his feet and kissed on both cheeks.

As thousands applaud him, John Paul always answers with clapping of his own. When black Catholics sang gospel music on the streets of Harlem Tuesday night, he sang with them. When ethnic families hudled together at the windblown Battery Park this morning to hear his speech on immigrants, this pontiff shared the bitterness of the weather with them, taking off his cap to the elements and making light of the conditions with the words, "The choice of day for our meeting is not the best."

With this pope, the simplest movement becomes charged with the electricity of his personality. Other pontiffs have raised their hands, open and upward, to their people. But when John Paul makes this gesture he seems actually to embrace the crowd before him. Moving his hands ever so slightly, he both greets and beckons.

Sometimes he touches the crowd with no movement, no word at all. Sitting on a throne at Yankee Stadium Tuesday night, his fingers lightly touching his lips in thought, he inspired awe from those in the audience of 80,000 who saw in his silent pose an image of majesty.

In everything that goes on about him, John Paul is more than witness, he is a participant. Sitting at the altar at St. Patrick's Cathedral this morning as a celebrant read from Psalm 77, the pope silently mouthed the words. When the choir sang "Speak broadfully no longer, nor let arrogance issue from your mouths," the pope sang, too.

This involvement in everything he sees touched the nuns of New York this morning. Sister Rita Catherine Young, a Dominican nun who attended the Yankee Stadium mass and got only 90 minutes sleep before she queued up outside St. Patrick's early this morning, said: "I have renewed faith and hope. He brings hope to the people and reminds us of things we know, but sometimes forget."

Another nun, Sister Annunciation Isisarri, a 59-year-old nurse in the South Bronx, added, "I liked the other popes, but I especially like this one. He's not just for the Catholic people. He's for everybody.'

Indeed, in Harlem Tuesday night, one of those who was most touched by the pope was an old woman who said she was a lifelong Baptist. She stood out on the street for seven hours awaiting one look at the pope. Later, after John Paul had disappeared into the night, the woman stood alone on 141st Street, smiling as tears rolled down her cheeks.

"I touched him," she said."I seen misery and I seen hard times. But see me now, this night I'm crying 'bout the most exciting thing that ever happened to me."

John Paul tempers the demands he makes with the suggestion that only people as good, capable and generous as his audience would be capable of meeting them. He tailors what he says to both console and perhaps flatter those who hear him.

In Boston, he told the youth of America they must forsake the culture of sex and drugs that attracts them, but at the same time he told them they would soon be leaders, a message youth always wants to hear. His praise of the United Nations as he addressed it seemed unbounded, even as he told its members that they must change entirely the way that they have come to look at the world. Here in America, he is careful to speak not only to Catholics but to all Christians and to "every human person."

In Boston, in New York, in Philadelphia, the crowds that have responded to the pope's personality have been of every faith, of every recent age. Through the neighborhoods of the three cities -- neighborhoods where boundaries could be marked by the color and features of the faces in the crowd -- the crowds themselves were uniformly huge before his passing motorcade. The cheering, no matter what boundaries were crossed, never stopped.

The peculiar intimacy that the pope shares with his audiences flows to him as well as from him. The excitement of cheering crowds seems literally to give him strength in the face of the exhausting schedule he has set.

As he addressed the United Nations on Tuesday morning the pope was clearly tired. He spoke even more slowly than usual. He walked with heavy, leaden strides. But as he was driven through the streets of New York past more than a million wildly cheering people later in the day, new life seemed to surge into him. His words came more quickly, his smile more easily. Once again, he became a conductor in a concert of applause.