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Washington's New Pope John Paul II Cultural Center

By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Faith influences everything, including how we see our world, other people and ourselves. Washington, D.C.'s Pope John Paul II Cultural Center offers interactive exhibits—and much more.


Photo by
Robert Burgess

The Center's exhibits and the Intercultural Forum for scholars explore how faith and culture interact.


On March 22, 2001, Washington, D.C.’s Pope John Paul II Cultural Center opened to the public. Back in 1989, Bishop Adam J. Maida, then bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, thought of establishing a center—something like a U.S. presidential library—to honor Pope John Paul II. The pope countered by suggesting a place to explore not his life and ministry but rather the interaction of faith and culture, one of his primary concerns as student, professor, bishop and pope.

Maida, who became archbishop of Detroit in 1990 and a cardinal four years later, worked quietly on this project for several years, always expecting the Center to be built in Krakow, Warsaw, Rome or wherever the pope chose. After shifting the Center’s focus, Pope John Paul II selected Washington, D.C., which he described as “the crossroads of the world.” Maida presented preliminary sketches to the pope in 1997.

This four-level, handicapped-accessible, 100,000-square-foot Center on a 12-acre site with plenty of parking includes permanent and rotating exhibits, two areas designed for children, an Intercultural Forum for scholars and the Forum’s own library. The Center features a small chapel, three auditoriums, a cafe and two gift shops emphasizing faith and culture more than the person of John Paul II.

The Polish Heritage Room is the Center’s only area devoted exclusively to Pope John Paul II.

Located a quarter-mile north of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and a 15-minute drive from the U.S. Capitol, the Center is prepared to welcome visitors of all ages and faiths.

When I visited the Center shortly after its formal dedication on November 12, 2000, most exhibits were still being assembled. They were field-tested by groups in February.

Dominating the plaza outside the main entrance will be a 10-foot bronze statue of the pope, a gift from Poland’s bishops. The statue should be installed by June 9 when an estimated 6,000 Poles and many more Polish-Americans will participate in Polonia Day. Archbishops Jozef Zycinski and Szczepan Wesoly came from Poland for last November’s formal dedication. The next day almost 250 U.S. bishops at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops visited the Center for a tour and dinner.

From the building’s main level, most visitors will walk down ramps. The railings feature the Hands of Peace exhibit, a bronze cast of the pope’s right hand and his quote (“God of peace, gift of peace for all of humanity, come to live in the heart of every individual and family. Be our peace and our joy!”). The other 100 bronze hand casts and short quotes about faith come from Catholics around the world.

Seven Themes Key to John Paul's Papacy

Two orientation theaters on the lower level present a short film, giving visitors an overview of the Center. Using a bar-coded card, visitors can select one of these seven themes:

• The Glory of God Is the Human Being Fully Alive
• The Dignity of the Human Being
• The Church as Defender of Human Rights
• Persons in Community
• Unity of Christians, the Unity of the World
• A New Evangelization
• The Third Millennium

Because the Center offers so many options and those who visit together may not see everything that their companions created, visitors can use their card to record their own video, audio or artistic contributions at interactive exhibits. Later at one of the cafe’s 16 interactive stations, visitors can share those contributions with other family or group members. The Faith in Action series helps visitors to become aware of and connect with national Catholic and other organizations sponsoring community-service projects.

Exploring All Angles of Life

Five galleries make up the lower level’s permanent exhibits. The Church and Papal History Gallery describes the impact of various popes on world events, provides selections of papal speeches on the seven key themes and presents a Church history timeline. An interactive station offers answers to many questions about Catholicism, its history, leaders and traditions.

The Gallery of Faith promotes respect for the world’s many religions and cultures. At its “Testimonials of Faith” station, visitors can create a video, audio, print or artistic reflection on what faith means to them. These can be offered for sharing with the Center’s future visitors.

The Gallery of Wonder explores the interaction of faith and the physical world around us, probing the relationship of religion and technology. Visitors can record their hopes for the universe.

The Gallery of Community demonstrates how the Church sees itself as a community of faith. The “Church of Many Cultures” interactive station provides a glimpse of that global community and how its members try to follow Jesus’ example of service. Another station allows visitors to hear others’ testimonies about service and record their own message.

The Gallery of Imagination encourages creative activities which can bring people closer to God. It provides an opportunity for group work through playing music or creating an electronic stained-glass window. The gallery features a display of faith-inspired art.

Also on the lower level is a Children’s Gallery, which has a section where parents can lead children under the age of four through age-appropriate exhibits. In the child-care section, staff members help children aged four to eight utilize that area’s videos and interactive exhibits.

Ground-Floor and Upper-Floor Treasures

On the ground floor, the Gallery of Mary allows visitors to see Mary through the eyes of several cultures and to appreciate Mary’s impact on each culture. The Polish Heritage Room will have permanent and rotating exhibits, including photos, publications, medals issued during John Paul II’s pontificate and, at least last November, a pair of skis used by the pope! A few of these items were donated directly by the pope but most were given by Msgr. Michael R. Dylag (Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan), who began collecting this material immediately after John Paul was elected pope.

The second floor is dedicated to rotating exhibits from the Vatican Museums and other collections. Exhibits will be displayed from six to 12 months. “Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary,” the first exhibit from the Vatican Museums, runs until June 2002.

The third floor houses the Intercultural Forum, a center where 12 visiting international theologians, philosophers, historians and other scholars will work from six months to two years on issues relating to the papacy, as well as faith and world culture. Several groups have endowed the 12 chairs of “faith and culture,” providing stipends for visiting scholars. Directed by Father Augustine Di Noia, O.P., the Forum fosters relationships with universities and religious institutions. It also sponsors lectures, conferences and publications. Last November its first conference, on the philosophy of John Paul II, attracted 200 participants. The Forum will have the capacity to do Webcasts and video conferences.

“We have arranged the Center in such a way that the visitor will truly experience an ongoing dialogue between faith and culture by being engaged in questions relating to science, literature, art and history,” Cardinal Maida told Mark Pattison of Catholic News Service.

The Center’s Web site ( will allow visitors to come back and follow up on their experience. The site already offers sections on the pope, the Center’s history, press releases, ways to contact the Center, ways to support it and staff contacts. Under construction at press time were sections on exhibits, a virtual tour and updates.

Early Reactions Enthusiastic

Last November’s official dedication allowed several hundred U.S. benefactors to glimpse the Center’s breadth of possibilities. In articles for The Michigan Catholic, Robert Delaney presented early reactions to the Center, mostly from Detroit-area benefactors:

  • “It’s something that’s so necessary in our culture today, to be reminded of our faith” (Judy and Joe Moceri).

  • “It is by far what the Catholic Church needs to teach the next generation our faith, and it’s what the Catholic Church is all about. People spend thousands to take their families to Disney World or other theme parks, and this is a lot more important. I believe a trip to visit the Center will be not only a blessing to these families, but an eye-opening experience about their faith” (Marvin Redlawski, parent).

  • “It’s been a phenomenal experience and it’s going to be a great experience for anyone. The Center provides a way to increase your faith through knowledge and understanding” (Ryan Mascio, Center volunteer and student at Catholic University of America).

  • “The most exciting thing to me is the way it’s been conceived and designed, as a state-of-the-art center for learning about the faith in the nation’s capital. So many tourists come to Washington, and this Center will be a place where people of all faiths can visit” (Bishop Leonard Blair, auxiliary bishop of Detroit).

  • “I see it as a Catholic Smithsonian” (Brian Keaney, Center volunteer and student at Catholic University of America).

  • “I think it’s going to be a beacon to the world” (Judith Darin, parent).

    “It’s seven museums in one,” said John Schwenkler, a volunteer, to Mark Pattison of Catholic News Service after the formal dedication. “A must-see place for American Catholics,” wrote Bishop Kenneth Povish, retired bishop of Lansing, Michigan, in his column “The Way, Truth and Life.” While touring the Center with a group of journalists last November, I was fascinated by the few exhibits then completed. At the interactive station about what faith means to you, I recorded a short video, emphasizing that it grows as people meet life’s various challenges. It’s the same God, but faith is not one-size-fits-all! By the end of my visit, I had the same reaction as going to the Visitors’ Center on Ellis Island: I could spend hours here and still find something new and exciting to see.

    Financing, Designing and Staffing the Center

    The Center is run by the Pope John Paul II Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit corporation of which Cardinal Maida is president. That foundation privately raised over $60 million of its $65 million goal. More than 53,000 individuals, fraternal organizations, dioceses, parishes and other groups contributed.

    Leo A. Daly’s architectural firm designed the Center. Adriana Radulescu served as project architect, working closely with Lori Arrasmith of the same firm. The Center’s design has already won an award from the American Institute of Architects. Daly’s firm also designed Our Lady of Angels Cathedral (being constructed in Los Angeles), the new National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ headquarters, the new terminal at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C.

    Edwin Schlossberg, C.E.O. of Edwin Schlossberg, Inc., worked for years on this project with his world-renowned team of interactive exhibit designers. “We wanted to create an exciting and compelling experience that engaged both Catholics and non-Catholics in the process of exploring and understanding their faith, and how their faith affected their role in their community,” he said. “We wanted this experience to enable both young and old to examine their thoughts by interacting with the exhibit experience and with each other.”

    The Rev. G. Michael Bugarin, a diocesan priest from Detroit, directs the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. He worked for a short time with Msgr. Walter Hurley of Detroit, who helped supervise the development and construction of the Center. “The interactive component, for me, is exciting, because I’m interested in technology and see the potential for using the technology for evangelization,” says Father Bugarin. “If we didn’t have a component that encouraged people to go out into the world [to put their faith into action], I would question whether we had failed in our mission.”

    Penelope Fletcher serves as the Center’s deputy director and chief operating officer. Rebecca Phillips Abbott is director of exhibitions and programs, and Wayne Wiggins supervises the physical plant. They will be assisted by approximately 50 staff members, including part-time volunteer docents.

    Memories, Questions and Suggestions

    During his homily at the dedication Mass on November 12 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Cardinal Maida said, “The first work of missionaries consists in recognizing the potential presence of the gospel in the given culture and then helping those seeds to develop, mature and grow even as they also critique that same culture.”

    Pope John Paul II Cultural Center aims to help generations of Catholics, other Christians, members of world religions and people of no religion to consider how faith in God can interact with every culture even as it challenges all of them. Many non-Christians will find their faith renewed by a visit to the Center.

    Everyone should come away challenged in a positive way. Adults, teens and children will leave Pope John Paul II Cultural Center with vivid memories, probing questions to clarify their faith and practical suggestions about putting that faith into action.


    Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is associate editor of
    St. Anthony Messenger. From 1986 to 1992 he served in Rome as director of communications at the general headquarters of the Order of Friars Minor.

  • At a Glance

    Mission: The Center is “a multimedia educational facility, museum and intercultural forum designed to engage people of all denominations in the exploration of the role of faith in the modern age.”

    Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday, noon-5 p.m. The Center is closed on Mondays, except for holiday Mondays when it will be open.

    Admission: $8 general ($6 seniors/students; children under three are free); the children’s gallery is part of the admission fee.

    Capacity: 1,000 visitors at a time for an average 90-minute visit; 200-person main theater.

    Video: John Paul II: Conscience of the World, a video made for public television, will be shown most often, but other videos will be shown on a rotating schedule.

    Accessibility: Closed-caption services for hearing-impaired visitors; ramps and elevators; wheelchairs are available.

    Visitors’ Guides: Large-print guides, plus printed guides in Spanish and Polish. Exhibit signs are in English.


    Phone: 202/635-5400.

    Address: 3900 Harewood Road NE, Washington, D.C. 20017-1555.

    The John Paul II Cultural Center should not be confused with the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, the Washington, D.C., section of an international institute of the same title. That institute is headquartered at Rome’s Lateran University.


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