He was a poet, a teacher, a diplomat and a champion for human rights around the world. At the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center’s big-money, black-tie fundraising dinner at the National Building Museum Wednesday night, the late pontiff was held up as, in the words of his friend and biographer Lena Allen-Shore, “not just a pope, but a great human being.”
The diverse crowd of 500 supporters, many of whom paid $1,000 and up to attend what may become the center’s first annual “Legacy Dinner,” emphasized the man not as the saint he may become but as recent history’s most significant emissary for international peace and understanding.
Laila Al-Qatami, director of communications for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said that when the pope died in April, “the Arab world mourned him just as much as the rest of the world.” ADC President Mary Rose Oakar, a Catholic, added, “He really reached out to people of all cultures, and popes in the past didn’t do that.”
Afif Safieh, head of the Palestinian mission to the United States, called him a “universalist,” “a character” and “the greatest person in the second half of the 20th century.”
After talking with this crowd, it would be hard to overestimate the store of global goodwill Pope John Paul II created through his extensive travels to some 130 countries — which helped explain the number of diplomats in the museum’s great hall, filling tables bedecked with rich gold cloths and gold-and-orange roses.
Guests included Ambassador Jean-David Levitte of France, who chaired the dinner’s diplomatic committee, Ambassador Nabil Fahmy of Egypt, and Jordanian Ambassador Karim Kawar, along with many Roman Catholic cardinals, bishops and priests.
Cardinal Adam Maida, president of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Foundation and archbishop of Detroit, hosted; Montana’s former Gov. Marc Racicot and his wife, Theresa, chaired the event; and Fox News’ Bill Hemmer served as emcee.
Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan was scheduled to be the headliner at the papal salute, but the Nov. 9 hotel bombings in her country caused her to cancel her travel plans. She sent a short, sobering video message condemning terrorism and calling for Muslims to work toward “reclaiming the true and tolerant Islam,” and supporting the mission of the cultural center in Northeast Washington.
According to Monsignor William A. Kerr, the center’s executive director, organizers hoped to raise $2.5 million from the night’s proceeds, most going toward the promotion of “interreligious inquiry.” Some will fund pacem (peace) scholarships for students from developing nations.
The center, now almost five years old, is part church and papal history museum with some high-tech interactive displays, part arena for religious reflection and study and, of course, it’s part memorial and tribute to a religious leader who, as Monsignor Kerr noted, “was not only a Catholic, but a real person of the world.”
— Christina Ianzito