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Saturday, March 31, 2001

Pope: 'Our Little Vatican In the United States'

Modern architecture and technology tell story of faith at Pope John Paul II Cultural Center

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Dappled light pours in from nearly every angle of the new Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, drawing all eyes heavenward.
And that's pretty much the point.
The center, a $65 million architectural marvel that combines traditional Catholic symbolism with modern, geometrical forms, is meant to honor God and faith.
Last week, religious and political dignitaries -- including President George W. Bush -- were on hand to celebrate the opening of the newly completed center in a 12-acre wooded area in northwest Washington, near Catholic University of America and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The privately funded center was the brainchild of Cardinal Adam Joseph Maida, archibishop of Detroit. Rome and Krakow, in the pontiff's home nation of Poland, were considered as sites. But John Paul selected Washington, D.C., because he sees the city as "the crossroads of technology and the people," said the Rev. G. Michael Bugarin, the center's director.
"We will come to view this as our little Vatican in the United States," John Paul has said. "The church has never done anything like this, and we see it as a reflection of our faith."
John Paul II, who has led the world's estimated 1 billion Roman Catholics since 1978, wanted "something to carry the church's mission forward," said Bugarin. "He wanted to use modern architecture and technology to tell the story of faith."
It is part art museum featuring treasures never-before-seen outside the Vatican, part interactive exhibit, and part think-tank for religious scholars. It also houses a small chapel for worship. Although the pope did not want the center to be a "monument to himself," John Paul's presence is felt in every corner of the building.
Bronze life-size castings of hands from Catholics around the world rim the wall above a sloping ramp on the first floor. First in line is the pope's left hand, smallish and creased with lines. Visitors are free to caress it or match theirs to his.
The pope's continuing devotion to Mary is revealed in two exhibits.
The first is the Gallery of Mary, a floor-to-ceiling, three-dimensional structure that resembles six doorways, each one dedicated to a specific culture's veneration of the Blessed Virgin.
Upstairs is a permanent gallery that will host a rotating exhibit of Vatican treasures. The opening exhibit, "The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary," which will run through 2002, features 38 pieces spanning 20 centuries.
Then there's the Pope John Paul II Polish Heritage Room. This is a "special place for reflection and study of the Holy Father as a person and man of God," said Penelope Fletcher, deputy director of the center.
It houses some of John Paul's personal memorabilia -- skis, a rosary, the fountain pen used to sign papal encyclicals, a place setting of his china, the cape he wore as a cardinal in Poland, his cane, a biretta and his mitre.
There are photographs of his parents' wedding, his life as a child, student, professor and bishop, copies of a play he wrote in college, his early philosophical ponderings and books from his home library.
"All these things shaped his character and formed his spirituality," Fletcher said.
The center's top level has been set aside for the work of the Intercultural Forum, which will bring together internationally recognized scholars in philosophy, theology, history and related fields to discuss the impact of the papacy on world culture.
On the lower level, visitors are invited to "engage in creative activities as a means for bringing them closer to God," Fletcher said.
The Gallery of Church and Papal History traces the history of Catholicism and the papacy. Those who click on a pope's name will hear significant events during that papacy, including some of the church's "darker moments," such as when accused heretics were burned at the stake.
The Gallery of Wonder explores the relationship between the church and science. Among other topics, it offers scientific, biblical and mythic views of the world's creation.
The Gallery of Faith describes many of the world's religions from Baha'i and Buddhism to Judaism, Jainism and Islam. It also provides computer terminals where people can search databases of Catholic saints, research questions about Catholicism and offer their own testimonials of faith.
As visitors exit the building, overhead speakers whisper "Peace be with you" in 75 languages from countries the pope has visited.
For ticket and other tour information, see the center's Web site at

©Copyright 2001, The Salt Lake Tribune

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