They came to pray, to be counted as Americans and to try to make sense of faraway violence and death. They came to St. Matthew's Cathedral and Howard University yesterday for Washington's first formal memorial services to share the shock and sorrow of more than 200 American families who had lost their sons, their husbands, or their fathers in the massacre in Beirut.

A somber and sometimes tearful crowd of 1,500 people filled the cavernous cathedral as a procession led by an armed U.S. Marine color guard escorted Archbishop James A. Hickey through a congregation that included American, Lebanese and French military and government officials, but was composed mostly of citizens.

"Our nation faces important questions about the role of military force," said Hickey, who has been a leading Catholic critic of Reagan administration policy, "But this is not an occasion for debate on foreign policy. . . . Instead, we gather to honor the dead and pray for peace.

"The car-bomb in Beirut, the downing of a Korean airliner, the death squads in Central America, the terrorist acts in Northern Ireland, and the loss of life in Grenada are just recent examples of the violence tearing apart our world," Hickey said.

The Washington-area worshipers who turned out for the cathedral's noon mass and the Howard University ceremony included friends and families of marines, soldiers in dress uniform, secretaries, businessmen and construction workers on their lunch hours, and those who simply wanted to be counted as citizens sharing the grief of what Hickey called "a wounded nation."

Many held differing views on whether U.S. troops should be defending Lebanon or invading Grenada, but those differences were secondary to the common bonds of sadness and confusion, mixed with a strong sense of national honor.

"We are not a perfect nation. We may even be wrong" in our foreign policy, said J.F. Hagan, 61, a Kensington insurance broker who served in World War II. "But we are Americans. . . . I am here because I believe we have to support our boys."

At Howard University's service, coordinated by the campus ROTC, the mood among some 70 worshippers was like that of a family wake, with some students weeping, praying and singing, others voicing confusion about the country's military mission.

"You may not necessarily agree with what is going on," said Army ROTC leader Capt. Roscoe Campbell, "but a lot of people lost their lives, and that's what we are focusing on."

Evans E. Crawford, dean of Howard's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, noted that because of past discrimination, black Americans "had to fight for the right to fight for our country. . . . Those for whom the bells tolled in Beirut included those in our heritage," he said. "As Langston Hughes said, 'We too sing America.' We join in the grief that this nation feels."

Amy Proft, a Washington-based IBM employe, said she came to the mass to honor the dead, even though the marines in Lebanon represent "a mission I do not understand. . . . I have the same feeling as I did in the Vietnam era , that we are throwing away lives."

With tears in her eyes, Fay Fryer, a 45-year-old legal secretary from Alexandria, left St. Matthew's thinking about her own ordeal as the mother of a marine. Her son, William Dillon, then only 19, was aboard a Marine vessel that collided with a freighter in 1976 off the coast of Spain, killing dozens of Americans. "I didn't know for three days if my son was alive or dead," Fryer said, "I just thank God how lucky I was that he lived, and I think about the mothers who don't know about their sons now."

Outside St. Matthew's, Charles Blaylock, who said he was a veteran of the Marines in Vietnam, was stopping people to ask for money. Blaylock said he was an alcoholic and was hungry. He said he had come to the mass to honor his country and his fallen brethren. "If it wasn't for the United States, nobody in the world would be free," he said. "We are the peacekeepers of the planet."