Bahai News - Papal center more ecumenical, less personal Thursday | March 29, 2001


Papal center more ecumenical, less personal

By Mara H. Gottfried / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – It is a hand frozen in time, cast in bronze.

Deeply creased and relatively small, the life-size mold of Pope John Paul II's hand is the first image that visitors encounter in the "Hands of Peace" exhibit.

But those visiting the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, which opens Thursday, won't find much else of the pope's imprint throughout the center.

"He didn't want a monument to himself," said Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop of Detroit and the man who developed the idea for the center in the late 1980s. "He wanted it to be an instrument of evangelism."

Organizers hope America's 62 million Catholics will visit the museum, built in honor of the 20th century's longest-serving pope. But they say they also hope it will attract non-Catholics, particularly because it is named for one of the most well-known and admired leaders in the world.

The center includes an interactive museum, an art gallery with rotating exhibits from Vatican museums and a theological think tank. President George W. Bush is scheduled to speak at the opening Thursday.

The museum, on 12 acres of wooded land, is away from the hustle and bustle of downtown and close to Catholic University of America. Its long driveway is designed to make visitors feel like they are taking a "retreat for the day," said design architect Lori Arrasmith with the Leo A. Daly firm, which has offices in Dallas.

The wing-shaped roof appears to float above the $65 million center as it balances on slender columns. Visitors are greeted by a 75-foot, gold-leaf and gilded steel cross above the sleek limestone and granite building. A reflecting pool runs the width of the building, which was financed with private donations.

"We wanted this building to be uplifting, celebratory and light-filled," Ms. Arrasmith said. "We wanted it to be more about the next millennium, rather than the last."

The buzzword in the five museum galleries is "hands on" as tourists learn about Catholicism and faith around the world. Computer screens beckon visitors, images flash along the walls and music and voices fill the air. Visitors use an electronically encoded card to select one of seven themes, from evangelism to the third millennium, to customize the information they receive in each gallery. Visitors are encouraged to add their own thoughts to the exhibits by creating artwork or stopping by "testimonial" stations to videotape themselves describing their own faith experience.

Dr. Edwin Schlossberg, husband of Caroline Kennedy, designed the exhibits and likens them to a "modern-day cathedral."

"In order to learn about Catholicism, there needs to be a sense of conversation," said Dr. Schlossberg, president of Edwin Schlossberg Inc., a New York design firm. "We wanted the experience in the center to be one in which the visitors created the content of it."

The Gallery of Imagination, which lets visitors explore faith through art and interactive features, may prove to be the most popular. People can visit an art station, a computerized stained-glass workshop for designing windows and a bell-ringing exhibit where they interact with others to play a hymn.

Families will be welcomed. An area for ages 4 to 8 has a tent with videos, crafts and bells, and there is an infant and toddler play area.

In the Gallery of Faith, visitors can use computer databases to learn about the lives of the saints or research world religions. Panels on a wall explain other religions, from Baha'i to Islam.

Given the pope's much-publicized comments about other faiths in the last year, the center's commitment to offering information about other religions may surprise some.

"[The center is] a great step forward, but it's just a step in the process," said Dr. John Norris, chairman of the University of Dallas' theology department. "Dialogue is really a very difficult process and it requires a sensitivity to listen to what others are saying before trying to get them to understand what you think. That's something that really needs to be worked on in Catholic and Christian relations with other faiths."

©Copyright 2001, The Dallas Morning News

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