As a pale blue dawn broke over the dome of the Capitol, Donald Kane knelt in prayer on the dew-covered grass surrounding the special papal altar -- an early riser among hundred who spent the chilly October night sleeping on the Mall.

"It's funny," said the 25-year-old electrician from Baltimore when he noticed a stranger nearby. "I haven't been to mass in years. But today, today I felt like praying. I feel God very near."

Kane was one of more than 3,000 people on the Mall at daybreak yesterday who had come with heavy coats and picnic baskets to get a head start on the crowd.

And while many had risen before dawn to make the drive into town, at least 1,000 spent the night on the Mall, huddling together on blankets and in sleeping bags, fighting the cold and the early morning rain.

But now it was daybreak, and Kane was inspired.

"Look at all these beautiful people,' he said. "I got here yesterday morning. Everybody's so friendly -- you can feel the spirit, the expectancy."

Around the perimeter of the altar, the crowd reflected a quiet sense of anticipation. Many who had camped out the night before still slept, rolled in the folds of their sleeping bags and plastic coverings. Others ate breakfast by the soft light of candles or lanterns.

Later, the melodies of guitars and young voices filtered through the air, greeting the day and its promise. The talk was of Pope John Paul II.

"This pope is so charismatic," said Charles Larsaleve, 22, a serviceman stationed at Fort Meade who had come Friday night to stake out his space.

"With the hierarchy, it's usually all bowing and scraping and accepting," he said. "But John Paul, he's human. He's a poet and a writer and an athlete. I hope he comes close so I can touch him."

"He's so friendly, so real," said Bonnie Paul of Vienna, "I watched him on TV when he was in New York and in Philadelphia. To participate in his mass, to be right here with him . . . . Well, it'll be something I'll be able to tell my grandchildren about someday."

Sitting under a tree wrapped in a blanket and a Day-Glo orange poncho, Rosemary Gibson reflected about her pilgrimage over a bologna sandwich and a pint of milk.

"I wouldn't be here if the Rev. Moon or Jimmy Carter were going to speak. The pope has been saying a lot of controversial things about the church during his visit here, things I don't wholly agree with," said the 23-year-old Georgetown University student.

"But the pope is a needed symbol in a world full of ugly and evil things. Maybe some of these people here will get a message from what he is saying.

"The thing about being here, though, is that, when you think of the church, you think of something universal and expansive. This huge crowd and that huge man will manifest that element."

Tom Morrison, another serviceman from Meade, said that while the pope's trip to Washington was "one of the greatest events of our time," he was distressed about the "political hoopla" that surrounded his visit.

"The Washington politicians have been trying to make the pope's visit their day, trying to make the pope their sidekick. They want him to come down to their level, but I know he wants to be with the people," he said.

Mary Sinclair, a 37-year-old nurse from Fairfax, said she believed her presence at the papal mass was something she owed to others who could not come.

"Many of my patients were real upset that they wouldn't be able to make it down here today," she said. "I have a whole list of prayers that I have to say for people."

"You know," said Kane, "it sounds kind of corny, but now I think that being here really means something other than just another good time. It's so mellow, so nice. You kind of get the feeling that when you leave, things will never be the same in your life again."