- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

A visit to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is an opportunity to see how faith, community, society and spirituality co-exist. Those centuries-old lessons are presented for the new millennium, with plenty of hands-on, multimedia activities for the whole family.

The youngest visitors can build a cathedral out of blocks. School-age children can make a video about what faith means to them or touch a computer screen that answers questions on Catholicism. More reflective visitors can discuss the relationship between faith and science or how faith influences values.

The $65 million center, next to Catholic University of America in Northeast, opened a little more than two years ago. The center originally was planned as a sort of “presidential library” honoring the life of Pope John Paul II, says Sandy Peeler, the center’s director of public relations.

“The pope wasn’t too thrilled,” Ms. Peeler says. “He didn’t want the place to be about himself. He wanted it to be about faith and culture and spirituality, not just in Catholicism, but in all religions.”

It was the pope who requested that such a place be constructed in the District, Ms. Peeler says.

“They were thinking of Rome or Warsaw,” Ms. Peeler says, “but he wanted it here, saying it was the crossroads of the world.”

The center houses both permanent and rotating exhibits. The rotating exhibit “Windows Into Heaven: Russian Icons, 1650-1917,” will be on display until Aug. 17. The exhibit, on loan from a private collection, contains more than 85 icons — mostly tempera hand-painted on wood — from Russia. Art lovers will appreciate the symbolism, composition, colors and history of the icons.

In September, the center will open “At the Altar of the World,” a photo exhibit that will celebrate the pope’s 25th anniversary.

The center has a permanent display honoring the pope as well. The Papal and Polish Heritage Room contains photos, artifacts and personal items of John Paul II, beginning with his life as a child in Poland. Visitors can see the pope’s regal cape, cane, rosary and shoes on display. They also can see a pair of his beloved skis and gifts given to him by world leaders.

The permanent collection contains most of the interactive bells and whistles that help put faith into perspective. Visitors are given bar-coded “smart cards” to insert in kiosks and stations around the galleries. With the cards, visitors can participate in activities, question-and-answer sessions and other learning games.

The cards can be programmed to follow one of seven themes (such as “Church as Defender of Human Rights” or “Glory of God”). This way, even a return visit will be enlightening.

“You can come back seven times, and you won’t get the same tour twice,” Ms. Peeler says.

The interactive galleries are divided into five areas:

• The Gallery of Church and Papal History. Timelines here show the evolution of the church, and computer stations answer questions — from the basic to the esoteric — about Catholic faith.

• The Gallery of Faith. This is a place where visitors can reflect on what faith means to them. They can learn about other religions and compare and contrast them to their own.

A popular spot in this section is a reflecting pool where water runs soothingly over words such as “life,” “greatness,” or “eternal.” Visitors can move blocks around to various words.

“Changing the blocks changes the flow of water,” Ms. Peeler says. “People will spend half an hour here. It really gets them thinking.”

mThe Gallery of Wonder. This area explores the relationship between faith and science, including theories of creation from around the world.

mThe Gallery of Community. This section shows the Catholic tradition of community service. Visitors later can explore volunteer opportunities (with Catholic as well as nonsectarian groups such as Special Olympics) at another computer station.

mThe Gallery of Imagination. This area is where visitors can be creative. They can use a computer to design a stained-glass artwork or create a mural of what they have learned. In a “ring the bell” game, visitors work together pulling ropes to make cathedral bells ring. There is also a simple art table where visitors can paint, color, cut and glue to express themselves in regard to a daily theme (such as joy or peace).

Finally, there are additional rooms for younger members of the family. The Children’s Gallery features a playroom for infants and toddlers as well as a themed activity room for children younger than 7. That room features a padded map-of-the-world carpet, a quiet room with a TV that plays Bible story videos, and blocks that look like pieces of stained glass.


Location: The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is at 3900 Harewood Road NE in the District.

Hours: From April through December, the center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. From January through March, the center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Route 50 west and exit onto South Dakota Avenue NE. Follow South Dakota and turn left onto Monroe Street NE and follow it to Michigan Avenue. Turn right onto Harewood Road NE just past the entrance to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Admission: The suggested donation is $5 for individuals, $15 for families and $4 for seniors, students and groups.

Parking: Free on-site parking is available.

More information: 202/635-5475 or www.jp2cc.org.

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