KELLNER: D.C. shrine in the spotlight as John Paul II nears sainthood

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The July 5 announcement by the Vatican that blessed John Paul II, the pontiff who died in 2005, has been “cleared” by Pope Francis for canonization was not overly surprising. From the chants of “Santo Subito!” (“Saint Now!”) at his funeral to his beatification two years ago to the two miracles attributed to him, the Polish-born pope was a favorite among Roman Catholics, and he was respected and loved by many beyond the church’s ranks.

Pope John Paul II will always have a special place of honor in the hearts of Jews everywhere,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, in an April statement released by the group. “In our two private audiences with the Pope, we experienced firsthand the uniqueness of this great man,” citing in particular the warmth with which the pope “engaged in conversation with each of the Holocaust survivors who were members of our delegation.”

John Paul II, whose canonization will be accompanied by a similar honor for Pope John XXIII, who convened the historic Second Vatican Council in 1962, is not without connections to the Washington area.

In his first of seven visits to the United States, in 1979, John Paul II became the first pope to visit the White House, conferring with then-President Jimmy Carter, following stops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa.

There’s also the 25-year-old Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, which grants ecclesiastical degrees. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education also accredits the school.

But there’s another John Paul II link in the area, located on Harewood Road Northeast, close by the Catholic University campus. The Blessed John Paul II Shrine, established by the Knights of Columbus, the 1.8-million member group that bills itself as “the world’s largest lay Catholic organization,” is open daily except Sunday. Patrick Kelly, its executive director, said he expects increased attention as the canonization date — expected later this year — approaches.

“We have an interim exhibit to John Paul II on our second level, and are looking to open the major exhibit in early 2014,” Mr. Kelly said a few hours after the canonization approval was announced.

What, exactly, is a shrine, and why have one in a city the late pope only visited once?

“A shrine is a place where people come on pilgrimage, and they come to venerate a particular person, or some aspect of the faith that draws them closer to God and closer to the lord,” Mr. Kelly explained. “We have a shrine to John Paul II in the U.S. and it serves as a shrine for the entire continent,” he added. “Washington being the capital of the United States, it is a natural for the shrine to be here.”

From John Paul II’s first visit to the United States, Mr. Kelly said, the late pontiff stayed “on message,” concentrating on the core of the Christian gospel: “I think he was a person committed to love; that is to say, he believed that the human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and as such, every person has dignity and I think that is what caused him to have this tremendous love for humanity, for the human person.”

“That’s what was the engine behind his pontificate. … That’s why he traveled so much, to reach people with this message of dignity and to bring the message of Jesus Christ to people.”

Those who are not Roman Catholics will find much to appreciate in John Paul II’s life and ministry, Mr. Kelly asserted.

“I think if you look at the American ideal, our founding, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, this goes back to the declaration — these are ideas that John Paul II, in his pontificate, championed,” he said. “He was a champion of religious liberty, the call within the human heart, to know love and serve God. The right to life is something John Paul II spoke of frequently. There’s a tremendous amount that we as Americans hold dear that he spoke of eloquently.”

Admission to the shrine is free, and visitors will see many artifacts and relics of the late pontiff, including a piece of the cassock he was wearing in 1981 when a Turkish fanatic attempted to assassinate him. The relic, Mr. Kelly said, “reminds you of that person, that you have esteem for, in much the same way they might keep their grandfather’s watch.”

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