Text Size:
  • A
  • A
  • A

In the Footsteps of St. John Paul II


Alton J. Pelowski

Young people tour a temporary exhibit titled “Be Not Afraid: The Life and Legacy of Blessed John Paul II” at the Blessed John Paul II Shrine on Jan. 21. (Photo by Matthew Barrick)

In his annual report at the 129th Supreme Convention Aug. 2, 2011, exactly four months after the beatification of Blessed John Paul II, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson announced that the Order would establish a shrine in Washington, D.C. Located on the site of the former John Paul II Cultural Center, which opened in 2001 as an initiative of the Archdiocese of Detroit, the shrine would be dedicated to preserving John Paul II’s contributions to the Church and society.

“We have the opportunity and privilege of protecting his legacy through this shrine, of continuing his mission and of continuing to form the next generation of Catholics,” the supreme knight said. “The Knights of Columbus will be the guardians of that legacy for years, for decades to come because of this shrine.”

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington gave his blessing to the initiative and declared the site an archdiocesan shrine in August 2011. Last month, on March 11, it was designated a national shrine at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Beginning April 27, the date of John Paul II’s canonization, the site will officially be known as the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.

Since the Blessed John Paul II Shrine was established nearly three years ago, pilgrims have been welcomed for special events and several temporary exhibits on topics such as the conclave and election of Pope Francis. In recent months, while the second floor has featured an exhibit titled “Be Not Afraid: The Life and Legacy of Blessed John Paul II,” construction and renovation has been taking place in the shrine’s lower level to install a 16,000-square-foot permanent exhibition on John Paul II’s life and teaching.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, which is scheduled to open later this year, plans are also underway to convert the main floor into a church and to convert the current chapel into a reliquary chapel dedicated to John Paul II. The church and chapel will feature floor-to-ceiling mosaics designed by Jesuit Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, a Slovenian artist and theologian known for his distinct style and works at Catholic sites worldwide, including the Vatican’s Redemptoris Mater Chapel and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The centerpiece of the reliquary chapel will be a vial of Blessed John Paul II’s blood, which was entrusted to the Knights of Columbus by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, archbishop of Kraków and longtime personal secretary to John Paul II.

The church and chapel are expected to be completed in 2015, at which time staff will undertake further initiatives to develop the spiritual, intellectual and community life of the shrine.

To further elaborate on the mission and purpose of this historic initiative, Supreme Knight Anderson gave the following interview.

Columbia: What is the significance of having a national shrine dedicated to St. John Paul II?

Supreme Knight: History may record John Paul II as the pope of the millennium and one of the greatest popes in the history of the Catholic Church. Certainly, he was the greatest pope in the history of the United States, considering how many times he visited the United States and North America. Historians also talk about how John Paul II changed the face of Europe — the liberation of Poland and other countries behind the Iron Curtain — not to mention his dozens of visits to Latin America, Africa and Asia.

But his greatest contributions are his teachings and his spiritual witness as a Catholic, a priest, a bishop and a pope. Therefore, for generations to come, Catholics will ask, “Who is St. John Paul II? What does it mean to have a devotion to him? What does it mean to follow in his footsteps a Christian path, a Christian way of life?” Having a national shrine to St. John Paul II is a way to help pilgrims answer these questions and preserve his legacy.

Columbia: What was the spiritual vision and motivation for making a large church the centerpiece of the shrine, and designating the current chapel as a reliquary chapel?

Supreme Knight: The purpose of a pilgrimage is to have an encounter that changes one’s life. Historically, pilgrimages to shrines were very important in the history of Catholicism in Europe, the Middle East and the Holy Land. John Paul II would not want the center of this pilgrimage to be an encounter with him, but to be an encounter with the Lord. Therefore, we felt that the principal place of encounter should be with the Lord in the Eucharist. That’s why the large church will have the Blessed Sacrament, and the chapel will be reserved for veneration of a relic of St. John Paul II. We follow John Paul II’s teaching, witness and spirituality to lead us to the Lord.

Columbia: Why is the Knights of Columbus a fitting steward to preserve the legacy of St. John Paul II?

Supreme Knight: There are many reasons. First, the Knights know that Father McGivney was very concerned with strengthening families and Christian family life. And we know that John Paul II is regarded as the “pope of the family” because of the great contributions of his teachings and ministry. Also, like John Paul II, Father McGivney was very concerned about the role of the laity; almost 100 years before the Second Vatican Council, he founded an organization that promoted the vocation of the laity. A third reason is that the Knights of Columbus had a very special relationship with John Paul II. We cooperated in many projects and had many audiences, and we were able to work with him on his fundamental pastoral initiatives, such as fostering the new evangelization, Ecclesia in America, human rights and democracy.

Columbia: In planning the permanent exhibit on John Paul II’s life and teachings, what were some of the many things that were considered?

Supreme Knight: The intention of the permanent exhibit is to have this “museum” be part of the pilgrimage experience. It is not just an opportunity to see artifacts or interesting photographs, but it is also very much a part of coming to know John Paul II better: his accomplishments and his mission, but also his interior life, his spiritual life, his prayer life — what allowed him to become a great saint whom we might imitate more closely.

Columbia: How is the mission of the John Paul II Shrine building on, or distinct from, that of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center?

Supreme Knight: The John Paul II Cultural Center, which was supported in a significant way by the Knights of Columbus, was foreseen as a center in North America to study and understand more deeply the life and teachings of what was clearly understood at the time to be one of history’s great popes. Was it foreseen that the Church would declare him a saint so quickly? I don’t know. But now that he is being canonized, the center has naturally evolved to where it should be, which is not only an intellectual center for greater understanding, but also a spiritual center for devotion, evangelization and the conversion of countless Catholics, other Christians and perhaps even non-Christians. That is not being done only for a season, but for generations to come.

Columbia: What kinds of groups do you envision making pilgrimages to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine?

Supreme Knight: Certainly, I think that every Catholic will be welcome and can benefit from a pilgrimage to the shrine. Every American Catholic has felt the influence of this great pope. Many non-Catholics and non-Christians who are concerned about human rights, human dignity, cooperation among nations, reducing conflict in the world — they too will learn great things from the work and mission of this saint.

Patrick E. Kelly (left), executive director of the Blessed John Paul II Shrine, guides the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors on a tour of the shrine as it undergoes renovations. (Photo by John Whitman)

Columbia: The John Paul II Shrine is located near a number of significant Catholic sites that have been supported by the Order. How might these sites, and their relative location, fit into the life of the shrine?

Supreme Knight: I think we can look forward to many informal partnerships between the shrine and existing Catholic institutions in Washington. For example, there will clearly be a partnership with the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which is a graduate school of theology dedicated to the study of John Paul II’s teachings. The shrine will also be a great resource for generations of young Catholic scholars and students at The Catholic University of America. And there will clearly be a synergy between the Saint John Paul II National Shrine and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, given John Paul II’s great devotion to Mary.

The Knights of Columbus has been instrumental in the development of The Catholic University of America for more than a century, of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for more than a half-century, and of the John Paul II Institute for more than a quarter-century. And now, we’ve begun this new initiative, which like the others, is a contribution by the Knights of Columbus for the generations.