The John Paul II Cultural Centre opens in Washington DC

The John Paul II Cultural Centre opens in Washington DC

Alex Sidhu

The John Paul II Cultural Centre, Washington DC, is the most recent attempt by the Catholic Church in the United States to present the rich history and traditions of the Church through both age-old and contemporary means.

Opened in March 2001 by US President George Bush and the Pope's personal delegate, Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka, the Centre seeks to inspire a "new evangelisation" by presenting the heritage and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church through using the best of cutting-edge technology and tried and true conventional approaches traditionally used by museums and galleries. It also seeks to highlight the contributions made by the present pontificate of John Paul II, emphasising the links between "Faith and Culture" - a popular theme in the works of the Holy Father.

Recent visit

My recent visit to the John Paul II Cultural Centre allowed me to experience first-hand this very ambitious project. Special thanks here must go to Fr Ken Cienik SA, who arranged my visit. Fr Ken is a friend to many in the Melbourne Archdiocese, providing help and assistance to some of the young people who journeyed to Rome for World Youth Day last year.

Located on a serene 12-acre wooded site across from the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the Catholic University of America, the Centre has employed contemporary, functional architecture to convey an age-old message.

A variety of exhibits is housed on three of the four floors of the Centre, with the top floor designated for intellectual pursuits. One of its most impressive elements greets visitors in the foyer at the beginning of their visit. The cylindrical entryway features a stone from near the Tomb of St Peter, which has been blessed by the Holy Father. The tomb was discovered during excavations undertaken last century and is located under the main altar of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

On the basement level of the Centre are the uniquely designed interactive "galleries", which are on permanent display. Here, high-tech computer applications use words, pictures, sounds and images to immerse visitors in the history of the Catholic Church, and the life of John Paul II. The key feature of these galleries is their interactivity, which is particularly engaging for younger audiences. Each visitor to the Centre receives a "Visitor's Card" which activates the displays.

Interactive features include audio-visual archives of international visits, special events and speeches given by the Holy Father throughout his Pontificate, and a complete record of his encyclicals. Included among the various interactive displays are such activities as virtual bell-ringing (visitors can "ring" the main bells of a Cathedral), designing a virtual stained-glass window and an audio-visual recording booth where visitors can leave a message for future visitors to the Centre.

On the ground floor is the Papal and Polish Heritage Room. This contains photographs, artworks, personal memorabilia and other artefacts of the life of John Paul II - as a child, student, professor, bishop and pope. It includes a number of personal effects used or worn by the Pope, which help bring to light his character and life-long interests. These include, among other items, a pair of skis used by the Holy Father during one of his many skiing excursions as a younger man, and most notably the vestments he wore when opening the Holy Door at St Peter's Basilica to begin the Jubilee Year. Also on display are gifts received by the Holy Father during his pontificate, such as a "Mother of Pearl" Bible case presented by the King of Jordan.

John Paul II's commitment to spreading the Gospel of Life is demonstrated by the many stamps, coins and medallions bearing his image and issued by the scores of nations he has visited on every continent.

The collection is so vast that only one percent of it can be displayed at any one time.

The Gallery of Mary is also located on the ground floor, and emphasises the dedication John Paul II has had for Our Lady throughout his Pontificate. The Gallery is a floor-to-ceiling, three-dimensional structure, and pays tribute to Mary through icons and images of pilgrimages, miracles and apparitions.

Historic agreement

In a world first, the Cultural Centre has signed an historic agreement with the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, establishing a collaborative exhibition program with the Vatican Museums. This allows the Centre access to some of the world's most treasured pieces of history, which are exhibited in the special display area on the second floor.

The top floor is occupied by the Intercultural Forum - the intellectual wing of the Centre. The Forum brings together some of the world's leading scholars of theology, philosophy, history and related areas to study, discuss, write and teach about the interaction between faith and culture.

The John Paul II Cultural Centre is an exciting new initiative by the Catholics of the United States, mixing high-tech interactive galleries with more traditional displays to spread the rich history and traditions of the Church.

For those visiting the United States, particularly those young people intending to take part in World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, Canada, the Centre is a must-see - not so much for the high-tech gadgetry, but for the timeless message it imparts.

Alex Sidhu is currently undertaking his Honours year in Political Science at the University of Melbourne. His thesis topic investigates the relationship between Christianity and Democracy.

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