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Sharing the Blessing

Greg Schaber

Pope John Paul II forged a powerful legacy as one of the most courageous, inspirational leaders of all time. A man of immense gifts, he extended his spiritual and moral convictions far beyond the church, forever changing the world’s political and interreligious landscapes. And perhaps nothing underscores that legacy as well as his work in improving the relationship between Catholics and Jews.

This work is the focus of “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” an interactive, multimedia exhibit that opened May 18—which would have been the pope’s 85th birthday—at the Xavier Art Gallery at the A.B. Cohen Center.

The exhibit is a visual and aural collage of photos, video footage, soundscapes and rare artifacts such as the pope’s walking stick, baptismal certificate, school report cards, handwritten notes from one of his books, Holocaust items from Auschwitz, and vestments and other garments from his cardinal and papal years.

Video walls in the exhibit show religious and political leaders speaking with the pope. A bronze sculpture of the pope’s hand sits near the exit along with a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where visitors are encouraged to write their own prayer and insert it in the wall in emulation of the pope during his visit to Israel in 2000.

The exhibit, which has garnered international attention, is divided into four sections, each reflecting the four major eras in the pontiff’s life—his early years, the World War II years, his ministry and his papacy. The first section focuses on the years 1920-1938 in Wadowice, Poland, where the young Karol Wojtyla grew up in an apartment building owned by a Jewish family, and where he established lifelong friendships with Jewish children in his neighborhood. One of those children, Jerzy Kluger, is featured in a rare video interview in the exhibit. The second phase represents the dark years of WWII, when Wojtyla traveled to Krakow to enter the university and was forced to study underground because of the Nazi occupation. The area is marked with somber reminders of the Holocaust, including the lone extant Nazi license plate from the occupation of Krakow.

The third section documents the years 1946-1978, tracing the pope’s ministry from priest to bishop to cardinal, while the final section documents the papacy of John Paul II.

The exhibit stays at Xavier until July 15, at which time it goes on display at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., and then to various cities internationally.

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