America’s National Tribute to St. John Paul II

Knights of Columbus Showcase Polish Pope’s Lasting Legacy at Shrine


Editor's Note: This article has been updated since it went to press.


SAINTLY LIFE. The church containing a reliquary with St. John Paul II’s blood and a statue of the Polish pontiff are included in the Washington shrine dedicated to the life of John Paul II. Filip Mazurczak photo


The St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington is a moving tribute to a pope whose great impact on the Church and the world cannot be understated.

Eleven years after his death, Pope St. John Paul II continues to inspire millions of Catholics. Without a doubt, the best way to experience his legacy is by traveling to Krakow, the archdiocese he led for 14 years, as well as to his nearby hometown of Wadowice, which features a fine museum in the house where the future pope was born.

But those looking to learn about the Polish pope closer to home can make a stop at the shrine in America’s capital.

The shrine is a perfect place to celebrate the sacraments in the presence of the canonized pope’s relics, pray through his intercession and learn about his life and legacy.

The building that now houses the St. John Paul II National Shrine was opened in 2001 as the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. In 2011, shortly after John Paul was beatified, the Knights of Columbus announced that it would purchase the building and turn it into the foremost American shrine celebrating the life and legacy of the man whose tireless efforts to imitate Christ had touched so many souls. The shrine has been open since the Knights acquired it, even amidst major renovations.

The result is nothing short of inspiring. First and foremost, the shrine is a place of worship. On the ground level, there is Redemptor Hominis Church, where Mass is celebrated daily and the Rosary is prayed Mondays through Saturdays. Edoardo Ferrari, an Italian sculptor, designed the white marble altar here, as well as the altar in the Luminous Mysteries Chapel. The altar in the Luminous Mysteries Chapel includes a reliquary containing a first-class relic of John Paul’s blood, given to the shrine by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, the pope’s secretary of 39 years. The reliquary was also designed by Ferrari.

Both the church and the Luminous Mysteries Chapel are graced by beautiful mosaics, modern with subtle Byzantine influences, made by Slovenian Jesuit Father Marko Ivan Rupnik and the Centro Aletti artists’ community of Rome. Father Rupnik and Centro Aletti are best known for designing the Vatican’s Redemptoris Mater Chapel. The shrine’s church features mosaics depicting scenes from the Old Testament and Jesus’ childhood. The one depicting the Epiphany shows St. John Paul II standing next to the Three Magi. Meanwhile, Father Rupnik’s work in the Luminous Mysteries Chapel depicts Jesus’ public ministry.

The lower level of the shrine contains what is undoubtedly one of the world’s best Catholic museum exhibits. A thorough visit to the “Gift of Love” exhibit requires at least an hour and a half. The nine galleries beautifully show the true story of how the Catholic faith can move mountains, topple dictatorial empires and heal centuries-old wounds.

They include “A Light in Darkness,” presenting the story of the Polish nation, which greatly suffered at the hands of its neighbors over the past 200 years, yet whose culture flourished thanks to the Poles’ fidelity to Christ.

Meanwhile, “The Dignity of Labor” showcases John Paul’s contributions to Catholic social teaching, which inspired the formation of Solidarity in Poland, which dealt a deathblow to the Soviet Empire.

“Uniting the Human Family” shows how John Paul, arguably the pope with the greatest contributions to ecumenism, led people of diverse religions, often painfully divided for centuries, closer together.

The final gallery, “The Communion of Saints,” shows photos of the hundreds of blesseds and saints John Paul II raised to the altars. Many were ordinary men and women whose striving for holiness made them luminaries of Christian love.

The exhibit shows plenty of priceless John Paul II memorabilia, from his Congressional Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States) to the colorful chasubles he wore while celebrating Mass in several African countries and valuable gifts he received from dignitaries.

The exhibits utilize plenty of engaging technology, including an interactive screen on which visitors can scroll to learn about all of St. John Paul II’s pastoral visits to 129 of the world’s nations, and another presents each edition of World Youth Day celebrated by its initiator.

Each of the galleries has interactive screens featuring recordings of John Paul’s old friends and luminaries — such as his biographer, George Weigel, Solidarity founder and former Polish President Lech Walesa, and Polish-born former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski — speaking about the pope’s enormous impact on the world.

In addition to its worship space and museum exhibit, the St. John Paul II National Shrine also hosts a growing number of events. On July 30, the shrine — along with other sites around The Catholic University of America’s campus — will host “Krakow in the Capital,” an excellent alternative for those who won’t be able to travel to Krakow for World Youth Day 2016.

After surprising the world in 1978 by being the first non-Italian pope since the Renaissance, John Paul II said that he was from “a far country.” The St. John Paul II National Shrine successfully brings the spiritual legacy of that far country, and above all of its greatest son, closer to home.

Filip Mazurczak writes from Washington.

He will contribute to Register coverage of World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow this month.