A Pilgrimage to the Saint Pope John Paul II National Shrine in Washington DC

Dear Henry,

On my last trip to Washington, DC, in addition to seeing the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I also toured the Saint Pope John Paull II National Shrine. 

When you mention Saint John Paul II, most Catholics I know immediately say something like "I love him" or "he was my favorite pope."  But he went on to heaven years before my conversion. So when I went to see the Shrine, the only thing I really knew about Saint John Paul II was that he had miraculously survived an assassination attempt and that he was everyone's favorite pope. So I feel like I should just turn in my Catholic card by saying that.

The Shrine is absolutely stunning.  

The Shrine began as a cultural center in 2001 (four years before his death), a place to come and learn about the faith. The center also held regular exhibits featuring religious art. After Saint John Paul II died in 2005, the building began to transform, and the site formally became a shrine in 2011 when Saint John Paul II was canonized by Pope Francis. The US Conference of Bishops designated it a National Shrine in 2014.  

The exterior of the building is modern and doesn't look like what you would expect a Saint's Shrine to look like. Instead, it seems like a contemporary art museum. The interior, though, is something else. The site contains two worship centers: the Redemptor Hominis Church (the larger) and the Luminous Mysteries Chapel. Both are stunning pieces of mosaic art created by Father Marko Rupnik. 

The Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man) mosaics on the walls feature a biblical timeline from the fall of man to its redemption. The mosaics have a real Byzantine vibe to them, and the entire space feels like you have walked into an Orthodox icon. The altar and ambo are Italian marble and feature the apostles and women from the tomb. They were designed and carved by Edoardo Ferrari and complimented the space perfectly. Relics of St. Franco de Laval, St Jose Maria Robles Hurtado, St Kateri Tekawitha, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St John Neumann, and St. Junipero Serra are all kept in the Redemptor Hominis Church.

The other worship space is called the Luminous Mystery Chapel. The mosaics there are just as stunning as the ones within the Redemptor Hominis Church and feature the imagery represented within the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, a newer rosary mediation that Saint Pope John Paul II instituted in 2002. It is a smaller, more intimate chapel, and here, the first-class relic of Saint John Paul II (a vial of his blood) is kept. In addition to the relic of Sint John Paul II, there are also relics of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Saint Albert Chemielowski, Saint Faustina, and Saint Gianna Beretta Molla. 

The site also hosts a museum that takes you through Saint John Paul II's life. 

As I mentioned before, I only had the vaguest idea of who Saint John Paul II was before my tour, and I wish I had known more about him before I went to the Shrine. However, what I have learned about him has affected me tremendously, and now I can hardly wait to take another pilgrimage (it's an excellent thing that Washington, DC, is a short train ride away) because I feel like I should really become more acquainted with Saint John Paul II.

One of the things that I have been frustrated with since I converted to Catholicism has been the lack of concrete examples for dealing with chronic pain and past trauma (read about that here). Even with the 2000-year history of redemptive sufferers and stigmatics, I regularly have (vainly perhaps?) been able to point out something within their journies that made their stories not applicable enough to my own experiences to be a helpful guide. Learning a bit about Saint John Paul II's life has made me wonder if, perhaps, he is the guide I've been looking for.  

Saint John Paul II had a rough life. He lost his sister, mother, and brother while he was pretty young and his father when he was just 20 and would spend much of his life without a family and alone in Poland during the occupation by the Nazis and then the Communist regime. Learning about his life made me wonder if I have found a saint who may understand the chaos, violence, and loneliness that were a large part of my early life. I also learned that Saint John Paul II suffered a near-fatal auto-pedestrian accident that permanently altered his posture and affected his gait. He suffered from chronic pain and emotional trauma for years before becoming pope.

And that is the point. Statistically speaking, severely damaged people destroy themselves. Saint Pope John Paul II didn't; he became the pope. So, I am incredibly interested in how he managed to navigate his lifetime of pain well enough to make that much of a contribution to society.

I've just discovered the book, "In God's Hands," which is the translated spiritual diaries of Saint John Paull II, and I'm about ready to dive into this work. 

I also plan on taking another pilgrimage to his Shrine soon.

You can check out my video tour here: https://youtu.be/jjCcN24ep6w

xoxo a.d. elliott


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

In addition to the travel writings at www.takethebackroads.com, you can also read her book reviews at www.riteoffancy.com and US military biographies at www.everydaypatriot.com

Her online photography gallery can be found at shop.takethebackroads.com


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