By now John Paul II has moved through the old centers of American Catholicism on the East Coast, crossed half the continent to visit farms and cities of the Midwest, and been seen by more millions and generated more emotion than any figure in memory. Any pope who travels America for the first time would create excitement, but there's more to the outpouring of affection and adulation we've been witnessing than religious message, historic precedent, or mere curiosity.

You can't watch this procession unfold day after day, from city to city, bringing new firsts of sound and song, new and vast turnouts of people from daybreak until late at night in lashing rains and chilling winds, without a conviction that John Paul's visit has touched something deep and personal in Americans -- something that transcends theology and personality. In a supposedly cynical and selfish era, this Polish pope, with his halting English, slightly stooped figure, biblical allusions and mystical beliefs has affected worldly, secular, jaded America as nothing in years.

All of this is easier to say than explain. We in the press single out John Paul's style, focus on the cheering in the concourses and commons, give the headcount, and record the spoken message. But none of this gets beneath the appeal or the reasons for the expressions of good humor and joy we're seeing.

Two scenes stand out, both in New York. When the pope's plane landed at La Guardia and began taxiing up the runway to the apron, all along the way mechanics, policemen, firemen, and food vendors lined the tarmac. They weren't part of any organized greeting, and certainly they werent's all Catholics. But nearly everyone was waving and smiling at the sight of the pope's face glancing out the forward window, passing by.

The same thing happened as we took off for Philadelphia in a driving rain. Again the airport hands stood waving and smiling. Those casual, spontaneous gestures seemed very personal. They were expressions of greeting, and also a salute to a man who has captured their emotions with a freshness as no one for a long, long time.

For almost a generation now, Americans have learned to live with leaders who bring disappointment and heartbreak. From John Kennedy through Jimmy Carter, virtually every person who offered himself for national leadership has met with destruction in one way or another.

The Kennedy brothers, representing the core of the major political party, were murdered. So were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, personifying two powerful elements of black America, one the older Southern rural religious faith of forgiveness and reconciliation, the other the harshness of the realities in the urban centers of the North. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, the hope of conservatives, left high office in disgrace. Lyndon Johnson, who promised the greatest domestic reforms since the revered FDR, was driven from the presidency. George Wallace, the reaction to change on the part of millions of Americans, was cut down and removed from political life.

Scandals scarred the political system. The war in Vietnam, racial riots, private and public conspiracies uncovered both within government and the corporate world all have left disbelief and distrust.

These are not original thoughts; they have been part of the matrix of America for years now. But they provide the context in which this unusual leader now tours our land.

Americans, no less than others, want to believe in the people who lead them. The desire dominates our feelings about politics, and colors our national discourse. It touches our emotions about temporal and spiritual matters. In recent years, an absence of belief in the leaders of the organized political and religious worlds has driven many into cults and communes, into experiments with other ways of living, and into general disbelief. But come a strong figure, Americans have given him their attention and sometimes their emotions.

This has been true with a Sadat, a Solzhenitsyn -- or a Jimmy Carter, who seemed so remarkably different from the political past three years ago.

No one of them, though, has stirred the people in the way John Paul has. That remains both the puzzle and the wonder of his visit. What we seem to have is a recognition that this Roman Catholic pope, the head of the oldest and in many ways the most rigid and authoritarian institution, brings not only dogma but humanity with him.

Watching him, and watching others react to him these last wearying days leaves one with a feeling that here is someone both unusually strong and sensitive, someone who seeks nothing for himself and who addresses the age old questions of injustice and poverty and inhumanity in ways that are moving to Catholics and nonbelievers alike.

You don't have to join his church, or share in his creed, to salute the man and honor his essential message. He preaches love and mercy and justice. When he says, in his heavy accent, "dear B-r-r-others and Sisters, I loff you," this old American WASP, baptized an Episcopalian, confirmed a Congregationalist and lapsed from any church in recent years, has to respond, along with many of his fellow citizens, "I love you too."