2016-06-30
The word of the day is "peace," and three school boys are taking it seriously. Seated at computer stations, they are clicking and dragging six or seven objects reflecting the day's word into their "collage windows." The available images include ones of Jesus, plants, abstract swirls, and symbols like the yin-yang circle.

A few seconds later, the collages they've assembled on their individual screens float on the white wall before them. The collages start small and grow, overlapping each other as they move around the wall. A yin-yang hovers near a palm frond; a jewel-encrusted gospel cover bounces off a pitcher of water holding a flower.

The boys have been playing with what may just be the first multimedia exhibit ever to receive theological imprimatur. The John Paul II Cultural Center, opening Thursday in Washington, D.C., is Catholicism's answer to Disney's Epcot Center--an array of hands-on interactive exhibits designed to make learning about and expressing faith a lot more fun than Sunday school ever was. And while the center will have less appeal for non-Christians, its sheer scope may be enough to attract people of many faiths.

The brainchild of Cardinal Adam J. Maida, Polish-born archbishop of Detroit, the center was conceived in 1989 as a way to honor the present pope and his teachings. According to center director the Rev. G. Michael Bugarin, the pope rejected the idea of a memorabilia museum similar to America's presidential libraries, saying he did not want the center to be a tribute to one man.

Instead, the pope himself urged Cardinal Maida to create a technology-rich center that would "make the Church and her message better known and understood," as the pope said in September 2000. Given a choice between Cracow, Rome, and Washington, John Paul II chose D.C. as the center's home. The pope sees the city as a "crossroads between technology and people in the new millennium," according to Father Bugarin.

The center, located about 20 minutes northeast of downtown Washington near the Catholic University of America, is a strikingly modern white building with a rotunda similar to the Guggenheim museum's. Funded by private donations (including $5 million from the Knights of Columbus), with exhibits smartly designed by Edwin Schlossburg, it's about as state-of-the-art as any ecclesiastical project can aspire to be.

The collage stations are part of the Gallery of Imagination, located in the lower floor of the center. This floor houses the five high-tech galleries where visitors are likely to spend most of their time. Gallery of Imagination visitors can also don headsets and form groups to ring bells (reminiscent of cathedral ones) in harmony, or use computers to design stained-glass windows that then appear in light-suffused glory above them.

Before exploring the galleries, visitors watch a nine-minute film focusing on seven favorite themes of John Paul II's pontificate, including "The Dignity of the Human Being" and "The Church as Defender of Human Rights." They then swipe digital key cards (each guest receives one with admission) through a barcode reader to choose a theme that will guide their interactive experience.

The first interactive gallery, appropriately enough, is the Gallery of Faith. The gallery's longest wall houses a collection of illustrations and text outlining the Life of Christ, with a Bible wall and a World Faiths wall adjacent.

This gallery's centerpiece is a set of booths containing video recorders, microphones, keyboards, and light pens; visitors swipe their keycards and use the tools to create Testimonials of Faith. The center selects the best of these to run continuously on screens surrounding the gallery; in one, an intense 19-year-old in a white T-shirt describes his vocation to the priesthood.

Visitors make stained-glass windows at the John Paul II Center in Washington D.C.

Visitors continue to the Gallery of Wonder, which focuses on intersections between science and belief. "Should we use limited funds to clean up nuclear waste that already exists, or to create cleaner sources of nuclear energy?" asks a computer poll. Visitors click on one or the other and then see how others voted.

Moving through additional galleries (including the Gallery of Community, where visitors can learn more about Catholic social action and create Testimonials of Service), guests finish in the cafe. Here, they swipe their cards at computers installed at every table and show family or group members the projects they've created.

The floors above the interactive galleries contain a chapel, gift shop, an intercultural think tank, and a small room containing papal items like the pope's skis, his six-piece dinner service, and a rosary he used through much of his papacy. The "Hands of Peace" exhibit includes a handprint of the pope and bronze hand castings of Catholics from dozens of countries John Paul II has visited. The second floor will house rotating exhibits of Vatican museum art (first up: paintings and sculpture of Mary).

Will non-Christians feel the center is worth their time? If they're curious about Catholicism (or simply like computer displays with bells and whistles), yes--though they may feel marginalized by the polite but clearly secondary treatment given to other religions. One wall of the Gallery of Faith contains short, accurate, but ultimately uninspiring descriptions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and other religions. Visitors who select "learn about other religions" on the gallery's computers are directed toward the official websites of those faiths--fair and safe enough, given that the Knights of Columbus weren't raising money for Shinto software, but a letdown compared with the sophisticated audiovisual programs elsewhere in the center.

Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians should have more fun, though they might be a little thrown by the strains of "Immaculate Mary" playing in the background as they make their way past the Marian Doorways, a prominent permanent exhibit that showcases various cultures' devotion to Jesus' mother.

The Gallery of Wonder's embrace of nonliteral interpretations of creation might also pose obstacles.

Though controversial aspects of Catholic Church history are downplayed, the Gallery of Church and Papal History's computer programs on Frequently Asked Questions don't evade certain issues. Clicking on "What are indulgences?" visitors see a short definition--followed by an admission that in the Middle Ages, "money was being asked for something that money cannot buy."

If nothing else, the center should convince guests that a 2,000-year-old church is capable of embracing technology to convey spiritual truths. As visitors leave the center's main floor, their steps trip sensors, and John Paul II's voice is heard in many languages:

"Peace be with you."

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