Excitement is mounting in the local faith community – and not just among Catholics – about the impending Blessed John Paul II Exhibit “I Have Come to You Again” scheduled to stop in New Orleans Feb. 4-May 11, 2013, at Notre Dame Seminary’s Schulte Hall.
More than 100 personal artifacts of Blessed John Paul II – stored in the Vatican Collections in Rome and the Pope John Paul II Center in Krakow, Poland – were procured for the exhibit. Father Malcolm Neyland, the executive director of the National Exhibits Association, is coordinating the exhibit.
Locally, Wendy Vitter – an attorney and long-time nonprofit and Catholic school event fund-raiser – is exhibit director assisted by Lamar Edwards, who is working on a graduate degree in theology at Our Lady of Holy Cross College and views Blessed John Paul as our spiritual father. They will work with an honorary committee of interdenominational leaders.
“We are trying to open the doors of this exhibit to all faiths, just as Pope John Paul opened his arms to all faiths,” Vitter said. “He was the first pope to go into a mosque and kiss the Koran. We’d really like all people to come and reflect on his life with us.”
Vitter said Father Neyland had met with Pope John Paul before his death, and they discussed the possibility of having such an exhibit and what he would like in it.
“He has the blessing of the pope to do this,” Vitter said.
It’s interesting that the exhibit – also traveling to the archdioceses of Seattle and Washington, D.C. – makes its first stop in New Orleans and will be housed on the same grounds where Pope John Paul II stayed during his historic visit to New Orleans in 1987.
While the people in the cities where the exhibit is scheduled may assume that the title refers to Pope John Paul’s return – since he visited all three locations during his life – the theme “I Have Come to You Again” was actually taken from some of Pope John Paul’s last words before his 2005 death. Vitter said the pope could hear (from his bedroom) the crowds gathered in St. Peter Square where he had often greeted them and uttered, “I came to you and now you have come to me, and I thank you.”
“It is particularly perfect for us because he’s coming to us again,” Vitter said.
Vitter attended Pope John Paul’s Mass at the University of New Orleans in 1987.
“I went out there and it was just amazing, just the feeling of the crowd,” she said. “It touched me, the whole event. To have all these people with the same vision – the same faith as you – you felt this huge sense of spirituality. You felt God present. If we can bring that feeling back to the people here (with the exhibit), it will be a success.”
The exhibit will be divided chronologically into four periods: the childhood and adolescence of Karol Wojtyla (1920-1938); his years as a laborer, priest, bishop, archbishop and cardinal in Poland (1939-1978); his papal years (1978-2005); and the years following his death through the current beatification process.
Among the artifacts will be camping equipment from his early priesthood, his crib, family photo album, vestments when he was ordained a priest and pope, a desk, one of his well-recognizable crosses, and a first-class relic – a vial of his blood – in a reliquary.
“What is so special is that these things will come together (for this exhibit) in these three cities and then will be returned … and never come together again.”
What’s also significant is that visitors will get a medallion – with the pope’s likeness on one side – that he blessed before his death.
More than 200,000 people are expected to visit the display in New Orleans, a number based on previous Vatican exhibits coordinated by the National Exhibits Association, Vitter said.
“And this is John Paul!” Vitter said, adding that a greater turnout is expected. “He had such genuineness and ability to reach out and connect with people, especially the youth.”
“He was a man of great compassion,” Edwards said. “Yes, he was pope, but he was personable and gentle and could meet people where they were.”
The exhibit is scheduled to be open seven days a week, with 24-hour security. Volunteers to man the exhibit will be essential.
“We are going to need and want plenty of volunteers,” Vitter said. “We’ve already gotten 20 volunteers – people who volunteered in the past when he came and those who didn’t have the opportunity (in 1987). People are so excited about it.”
Vitter sees the exhibit as an opportunity to deepen the faith, of Catholics and those of other religions, in New Orleans; welcome back those who have strayed from their faith to remember its significance; and to open the life of John Paul II to people of all faiths so they can reflect on this amazing person.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence it is coming to us during the ‘Year of Faith’ that Pope Benedict has called,” Edwards said. “It will not only bring back people who have faith already but those who are struggling with their faith. They are coming to experience a person and Christ in that person. It’s an awesome opportunity of spiritual renewal.”
An audio tour and printed material will be available at the exhibit. Tickets are expected to go on sale in late summer.
To volunteer locally, call 227-3207 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.