Throughout the Washington area yesterday, Roman Catholics and others prayed for John Paul II, the "Pope of Peace" who was shot in Rome as he reached out to touch the hands and heads of his people.

"We pray the pope will be restored to full health," Washington Archbishop James E. Hickey said at a special mass for the wounded Roman Catholic leader early yesterday evening in St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington. About 1,200 people including Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., other dignitaries and clergy of many faiths, listened to Hickey describe John Paul II as a man who "would choose to meet danger, even death, actively meeting and serving his people."

"He's a beautiful man who is deeply loved by everyone in the world," said Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, speaker of the House of Representatives. O'Neill attended the mass along with Secretary of Labor Michael Donovan, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and council member Dave Clark, national security advisor Richard Allen and Polish Ambassador Romuald Spasowski.

"It points to the violence, terror, murder and insanity which stalks not only our country but the whole world," Barry said.

The Vatican's apostolic delegate to the United States, Archbishop Pio Laghi, described the shooting as "something in the darkness, let me give it a name . . . evil or the devil. It is something devastating."

There are more than half a million Roman Catholics in the Washington area, and many of them -- young and old, black and white -- poured into St. Matthew's to weep and to pray. Throughout the day, a steady stream of people came in to pray briefly and leave. In the Washington archdiocese office next door, so many telephone calls flooded the computerized switchboard that it broke down.

"The sign of a good shepherd is that he lays down his life for his sheep," Washington's Auxiliary Bishop Eugene Marino, said in a noon mass at the cathedral. The shooting, he said, "brings home to us the reality of sin."

Classes came to a halt at Catholic schools throughout the area as the news blared over public address systems. At many of the schools, special prayer services were offered.

"Hail Mary, full of grace . . . pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death," intoned the children of St. Bernadette's Church in Fairfax County.

Seven-year-old Chris Fisher finished his 50 Hail Marys and said, "I wanted to go to the man who shot him and [say], 'Why did you want to shoot him?' I wanted to tell him, 'Just because you're sick, you don't have to shoot him.'"

"I'll pray for him to get well, but if the pope dies, I know he'll go to heaven," said Doug Palmer, a fifth grader at St. Bernadette's Catholic grade school in Silver Spring.

The pastor of St. Bernadette's, Msgr. David Foley, a normally ebullient man, was subdued yesterday and recalled that the pope sends annual letters to all his priests to reassure them of his faith and support. "Most of us feel very close to him," Foley said. "He does so much to encourage us, a very emotional man."

Some young people immediately connected yesterday's shooting to other violence. "It's like this controversy about the Catholics in Ireland, with Bobby Sands and all that," said Stacie Dockery, a 13-year-old student at St. Benedict the Moor School in northeast Washington. At a tiny chapel across the yard from the school where students were praying for the pope, one prayed out loud: "Please help them find the man who has been killing all those children in Atlanta."

Some students, however, were apparently so used to hearing of violent events that they were not shocked. At St. Benedict's, eighth grader Kellie Morton, 13, sighed and said, "It's another one.Every day, it seems like someone who is a prominent figure is being shot or killed."

In the student lounge in the basement of Healy Hall at Georgetown Univesity, a Catholic institution where 60 percent of the students are Roman Catholic, the TV room was filled after Reagan was shot, according to David Kramer, 18, a freshman from Florida. But yesterday the room was only partly filled through much of the afternoon.

But the midday mass in the university chapel -- was filled yesterday.

Catholics were not alone yesterday. Maynard I. Wishner, president of the American Jewish Committee, now meeting here, said John Paul II "deeply impacted" on the Jewish community. He said the attack "unites us all again in our prayers for his recovery" and in the determination to combat the "forces that are at work in mortal man that leads to such terror. . ."

"It scares you that anybody who represents so much love . . . that someone could shoot him," said Mary O'Donnell, 22, a nursing student from McLean who stopped her Catholic University graduation preparation to attend a noon mass at the nearby Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

"Nobody cares about life any more," said Elonia Brown, a retired bank employe who was at the senior citizens club at St. Benedict the Moor Church. "Nobody listens to the word of God. I'm glad I'm as old as I am. I feel sorry for the young people coming up."

Archbishop Hickey conducted an earlier prayer service at St. Matthew's yesterday afternoon before the mass for John Paul II, and it too was dedicated to the pope's recovery. In his sermon at this earlier service, Hickey recalled visiting the pontiff last March and noticing that "security seemed very light and far away" during a papal visit to a parish outside Rome. He said he watched the pope spend five hours in close contact with the people "like a father among his family."

Hickey said he felt there are "very good, cogent reasons for gun control," but in the long run this sort of act is almost impossible to prevent. He said he thinks that the pope, presuming he survives as expected, will want as much personal contact with people as ever.

As Hickey spoke in the vast, dimly lit cathedral where depictions of the heroes of Catholic history stare down from the walls, Marie-Carmel Doublette, an emigre from Haiti, prayed and cried. "I'm really sorry, I feel really sad," she said. "Since that pope came [on a visit to the U.S.], so many people come back to the church. Last Easter you could see so many people come from baptism. I have a broken heart."

"Que pena, que pena [what pain, what pain], said Mercedes Silva, an accountant from Ecuador who came to the church for a noontime mass.

"I don't want him to die," an elderly white-haired man said. "There seems to be so many people brought up nowadays without any discipline. They don't want a pope to tell them what to do."

In Baltimore, site of the nation's oldest Roman Catholic diocese, Stanley Matuszak was walking down Broadway yesterday when a friend gave him the news. "He said the Holy Father's been shot. I said, 'Oh my God,' and went home immediately and got down on my knees and prayed. It's like Kennedy. The pope's outstanding. He's man of the year."

In Leesburg, Va., the Rev. L. Joseph Baran of St. John's Apostle Church said, "It's shocking. The Holy Father, who in the world. . .? It just shows me one thing: nobody's invulnerable to anything."