President Reagan joined yesterday in a memorial tribute to longtime aide Joseph R. Holmes, who was praised by White House counselor Edwin Meese III as "the principal courier" of humor within the administration.

Leading members of the administration and numerous reporters attended the memorial mass at the Navy Chapel for the popular Holmes, who died of cancer last Friday at 55.

"Joe had a lot of sadness and difficulty in his life, but he always rose above it," said Meese, who praised Holmes for his dignity, courage and sense of humor.

Holmes lived more than a year longer than doctors had predicted, and Reagan called him several times in the final days to comfort him, friends said. In a statement after Holmes' death, the president praised the "courage and tenacity" of his "valued friend and trusted aide."

Meese said in his eulogy that Holmes, a communications specialist, had served Reagan when he was "governor, candidate, president and as star of a television show for children." The latter was a reference to a weekly television program that Holmes created in California, in which Reagan answered questions put to him by schoolchildren.

Holmes, a special assistant to the president and director of audio-visual affairs in the White House, also is credited with originating the idea of the president's Saturday radio broadcasts. In addition, Holmes originated and directed a project to compile a videotape history of the Reagan administration that is to be available for scholars.

Holmes' friends in the administration and press corps knew him as an optimistic and outgoing person who made light of his illness and tried to ease the burdens of others.

His optimism was a match for Reagan's. For years Holmes refused to buy life insurance, but less than three months before he succumbed to his long illness he started an Individual Retirement Account.

Meese recalled that Holmes also compiled a book of Reagan quotations and sent it to the president with an inscription describing Reagan as a man "whom destiny touched and apparently will not leave alone."

The president and Nancy Reagan attended the memorial mass and took communion before leaving for a four-day weekend at Camp David.

Commodore John R. McNamara, a Roman Catholic priest, offered the mass, and the epistle was read by Edward Hickey, a White House military aide and longtime friend of Holmes.