An uncommon tribute

I was 4 years old, and not Catholic, when Karol Wojtyla was elected the 264th bishop of Rome. By the time I was 27 - and as he entered his final four years - the Lord would call me to the church. St. John Paul II was central to this pilgrimage of faith.

So you might understand that when I emerged from the final gallery of the new 60,000-square foot exhibit at the Saint John Paul II Shrine in Washington on a recent afternoon, I was hit by a profound wave of gratitude to God, and to this saint.

I had also completely lost track of time. The nine galleries had taken me somewhere unexpected, and I sensed a need to find a quiet place to pray. But a child's band concert called, and thus began my descent from a special hill in Washington.

Earlier that afternoon, as I arrived at the shrine, I wasn't sure what to expect. Years ago, I had visited the former John Paul II Cultural Center. The former exhibit space somehow left me cold, as if the life of John Paul II played second fiddle to the sweeping architectural statements of an award-winning building.

When the Knights of Columbus purchased the building in 2011 and it became a national shrine in 2014, I knew something was afoot. But perhaps like stepping into a refurbished restaurant, I thought I would see merely cosmetic changes - a few new menu items and some shiny new furniture.

In fact, with the completion of the exhibit (a 500-seat chapel, and home to a first-order relic, will open this fall), the Knights have delivered on Phase I of an exquisite gift to the Church in North America. The multi-story ramp that used to oddly dominate the interior is now gone. Formerly vacant expanses of grey cement have been transformed into places of prayer and contemplation. The building now bows to the mission, not vice versa.

If an exhibit" is a "collection of objects on public display," then prepare yourself for much more. A palpable humanity - even intimacy - graces the galleries. One walks in the footsteps of John Paul II, glimpsing his life through the prism of faith. A tender affection for the man and a profound love for the Good News of Jesus Christ permeates "The Gift of Love: The Life of St. John Paul II" exhibit.

Theologian Josef Pieper describes the Christian's identity in the world as a viator, as one "on the way," or a pilgrim. The status viatoris, or "condition or state of being on the way," of the "not yet," is opposed to the status comprehensoris, in which man prematurely "takes hold" and errs in thinking he has "arrived."

"The Gift of Love" physically invites the "visitor" to try the bracing road of the viator. At any turn in the winding exhibit, one can pivot from the life of John Paul II to the God-man he served. One can lift one's eyes from a gallery on John Paul II's Marian devotion, to our Blessed Mother. Sacred music lifts the heart at various moments.

By tracing John Paul II's footsteps, we see him as the viator he was. We come to understand him from within, on his own terms. His soaring life is rendered accessible with the swipe of an interactive touchscreen; a brief archival video; a personal artifact; a synthesis of church teaching on a specific issue; a powerful photo, or icon.

At the exhibit on World Youth Days, I selected Toronto 2002. That Sunday in July, I recall how the rains had turned Downsview Park, the site of the papal Mass, into a vast muddy expanse. Beset by Parkinson's, John Paul II was somewhat slumped in his seat on stage. As the Mass got underway, the rain began to let up.

"You are young, and the pope is old," he said in his homily, "82 or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23." He reminded us that we are the "sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son."

Halfway through that homily, I looked up with 800,000 others as the sun broke through the clouds. John Paul II gazed ever so slightly upward, and said, "Tenemos el sol." The fields erupted in a kind of emotion that defies description: Together with this saint, we experienced yet another moment of joy.

Visit 3900 Harewood Road. Map it. Calendar it. Join John Paul II as a viator. Bring a friend or your family to this special hill, soon.

Find out more

Go to jp2shrine.org

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015