On a bleak, rainy afternoon as their long vigil came to an end, Catholics across the region sought the comfort of church services and shared remembrances of Pope John Paul II.

Somber crowds in North Baltimore walked through the afternoon drizzle as they filed into the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for Mass.

"Pope John Paul II was looking forward to this day," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, shortly before the service. "He thought about it often, he spoke of it often as something that would come, and he saw it as a doorway to another phase of life - a better life. That is what we believe, that death is not the end."

Speaking in a small building behind the cathedral, Keeler, leader of the Baltimore Archdiocese, stressed that the Catholic Church "will keep on going," even as it struggles to replace a respected and charismatic pope - a leader Keeler considered a giant in his generation.

"Our history is a long history, and we've had 263 changes of popes so far," he said. "I'm confident it will work out now according to the needs and the challenges of the time, that someone else will come along who will be able to lift up the Gospel message and touch hearts."

The first archbishop of Baltimore in more than 100 years eligible to vote in a papal conclave, Keeler will travel to Rome in coming days to attend the pope's funeral and to vote in the secretive process to elect his successor. He said he has spent much time thinking and praying about how he and others in the church will find a replacement, and that he trusts his faith to guide them.

Waiting for him inside the cathedral were nearly 600 people. Most weeks, about half the seats at the cathedral are filled for Mass, but yesterday the pews were packed with teenagers, the elderly, young parents with babies in strollers.

Church officials had affixed drapes of long black fabric over the doorways - traditional for a pope's death. Inside the dimly lit church, the intricate stained glass windows showed traces of light from the fading afternoon.

'A friend in heaven'

Speaking to churchgoers yesterday, Keeler urged them to believe that Pope John Paul's death does not mean the end for his work and his value in the church.

"I feel like I've lost a friend, but I also feel like we've gained a friend in heaven," Keeler added. "I think so many people saw in this pope a true Holy Father. And now, in prayer, they can bring petitions to him."

All across the city, the pontiff's passing shattered the routine of a Saturday afternoon.

In Canton, a lively bingo game came to a halt at the historically Polish St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church when a phone call brought news of the pope's death.

Some in the crowd, mostly made up of elderly women, began weeping when the volunteer bingo monitor made the announcement.

At the Catholic Community of St. Michael and St. Patrick in East Baltimore, priests were preparing for the routine Saturday afternoon Mass when word came.

"It's a really mixed reaction," said the Rev. Andrew Carr, assistant pastor there. "We're tremendously sad to lose him. ... On the other hand, he's been suffering so much recently but I can't help but be happy that he's gone to his eternal reward."

Carr, who met the pope in 1981 along with 600 others, recalled the moving intimacy with which the pope spoke to them two decades ago. Even with hundreds crowded into the Vatican gardens, the pontiff connected with each of them, he said.

"He was so human and so vibrant that you just felt very much at home with him," Carr said.

Officials offer praise