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Little Vatican: Pope John Paul center is designed to inform, inspire

WASHINGTON — At first glimpse, one focuses on the limestone facade, huge cylindrical entrance and sharp geometric angles accenting the perimeter of the $65 million building. One might overlook the large cross on top.

But that cross, with all it represents, identifies the newest tourist attraction in the nation's capital. After more than a decade of planning, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is a reality.

On one level, think of the center, a stone's throw from the Catholic University of America and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as a "presidential library" dedicated to the man who since 1978 has presided as spiritual leader of the world's estimated 1 billion Roman Catholics.

But look for much more than just books here. Doctrine meets Disney on the center's 12-acre wooded site.

Take one part church, one part interactive museum, a touch of art gallery, a dash of bold architectural design, a theological think tank and a small theater, then throw in a cafeteria and two gift shops for good measure, and you have a destination designed not only to inform but, as its creators say, to lift the soul.

"Our task is to take church teachings and bring them to the people," said the Rev. G. Michael Bugarin, center director.

The center has three major components:

The Intercultural Forum will serve as a center of scholarly research and teaching through a number of endowed Chairs of Faith and Culture. Dedicated to the study and understanding of papal teachings, it includes a library and conference rooms equipped for Internet broadcasts.

The Interactive Museum Experience will draw visitors to state-of-the-art exhibits, printed materials,

art objects and other items as they explore galleries related to the papacy, theology, evangelization and faith and culture.

The Exhibits Gallery will house permanent and rotating exhibitions drawn from collections of the Vatican Museums and other Christian art from throughout the world as well as items specifically related to the life and ministry of Pope John Paul II.

The 100,000-square-foot building includes a small chapel and other areas designed for contemplation. But it is also home to enough interactive and computerized doodads to entrance the fussiest child.

Both Rome and Krakow, in the pontiff's home nation of Poland, were considered as sites for the center. But John Paul selected Washington, D.C., because he sees the city as "the crossroads of technology and the people," Bugarin said.

"We will come to view this as our little Vatican in the United States," John Paul has said. "The church has never done anything like this and we see it as a reflection of our faith."

The pope could visit the center sometime during its first year, Bugarin said.

In the days before Thursday's official opening, gardeners spread mulch on extensive flower beds outside, while inside whirring saws and vacuums applied the final touches.

"We are going to be 99.98 percent ready," Bugarin said, beaming.

As visitors sidestepped electrical cords, they got a look at a collection of statues, paintings and other relics depicting the Virgin Mary, on loan through an exclusive agreement with the Vatican. The center's opening exhibit is "The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary."

On a separate floor, the Polish Heritage Room holds books, photos garments and even the skis worn by the pontiff during some of his travels.

With a boost from the nearby university and the National Shrine, more than 500,000 visitors of all faiths are anticipated annually. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children, and visitors will not receive a recruitment pitch for the Catholic faith, organizers said.

"We are not here to convert people," said Penelope Fletcher, deputy director of the center. "We are seeking to explore our own faith and open a dialogue, but we stop short of proselytizing."

Upon entry, visitors get a personal bar-code card that allows them to interact with seven gallery stations on topics including evangelization, papal history and the defense of human rights.

For example, the card allows them to sit in front of a computer and microphone and record testimony of their own faith. This can be kept private or made available for others to see on screens in the center.

Bugarin said support for the center has been widespread, with contributions ranging from $5 to $5 million, the latter from the Knights of Columbus.

Some might wonder, he acknowledged, whether the millions used on the center might be better spent purchasing food or shelter for the poor.

"Someone might ask why we are spending $65 million. I'd say that if you give me $65 million in today's world, I would hardly be able to make a dent (in the world's problems)," Bugarin said. "But if we get people to see how to put their faith into action through this center, that's how we can make a dent in the world."