Not too long ago, one of my best friends moved to Washington, DC. Thrilled that she was once again within a day’s drive (instead of halfway across the country), I’ve managed to find a couple of opportunities to go up for visits this past year, and have found myself enjoying DC much more than I anticipated.
There is something about being in a big city like DC that has a certain kind of magic for me. It is far different from my normal milieu of Carolina suburban life, or even from the small city in the mountains where I went to college. There is such a sense of really being in the world, where history has already happened, where things are actively happening that could affect other countries and peoples as well as our own country and people. Big cities make you feel so small and yet so connected to everything else. I have no desire to actually live in such a city, it’s too foreign and too busy, but I love to visit and soak it all in from time to time.
By far, my favorite place to visit in DC has been the National Shrine of Pope St. John Paul II. Not far from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as well as Catholic University, the Shrine and Museum of John Paul II is usually the first thing that I start talking about whenever the topic of Washington, DC comes up these days, even with non-Catholic friends. I had loved and admired John Paul II long before this, but taking a more in-depth look at his life and pontificate moved me on such an emotional and spiritual level that I was often in tears as I moved through the museum and the chapels dedicated to his memory.
Even the secular world will admit that Pope John Paul II was quite an impressive and inspiring figure. He came of age in Poland during the Nazi invasion, and had to train and study secretly before his ordination to the priesthood. He was the youngest Bishop in the history of Poland, had one of the longest pontificates in the history of the Catholic Church, and played in active role on the world stage in bringing an end to Communism. He was a brilliant theologian, and many of the ideas that he wrote about during his life are the very ideas that drew me to the Church. The universal call to holiness: the idea that we are all called to be saints and to praise God, not just those who consecrate themselves as priests or religious, and that we can do so in our everyday lives and interactions. The Theology of the Body: the revelation of God’s plan for these bodies that He gave us, the inherent goodness of these bodies that He gave us, and how we are to live out the gift of our own sexuality. Divine Mercy: the truth of God’s endless and never-failing love and mercy towards, if only we will ask for it.
The last time that I was up in DC, I went to Sunday mass at the Shrine, but that was all that I really had time for that day. However, as I was going back to my car after mass, I noticed something that I hadn’t the first time I went there. At the back of the parking lot, behind the Shrine itself, there is a statue of John Paul II, set apart all on it’s own with just a small stone path leading up to it. While I didn’t have a lot of time, I also wasn’t in a rush and so I decided to walk over and take a better look at it. The statue is larger than life, standing probably two or three feet taller than I am. The design is intentionally rough, and yet the face and eyes were so lifelike that I actually felt like I was in his presence. The face seems to radiate love down on you. He stands with his hands held out, and even though the statue can’t be more than a few years old already the fingers are being worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims. And I know why, because when you walk up it seems the most natural thing in the world to take hold of one of those fingers, the way that a child holds on to the index finger of a trusted grown-up. And the size of the statue truly does make you feel like a child compared to it, but not in a diminishing way. Rather, you wish that it could truly come alive and take you into those arms, comforting and protecting you. Such was the love and sincerity and hope that the artist managed to capture so beautifully.
As I stood there that cold, rainy November day, alone with the statue of this great man, I’d never been more aware or appreciative of the Communion of Saints. This is the beautiful teaching and belief that the Church has given us that all those who have died before us, those that have attained full communion with God and sit with him in heaven, are also still present with us on earth. They are still able to pray for us, to intercede with God for us, to love us and watch over us.
The world can seem such a frightening place these days, and I think that we are all aware that we are actively watching history take place. We don’t yet know what the outcome of this era will be. We don’t know how history will remember these times and events that we are both privileged and cursed to watch. But there have been many dark times in the story of our world, and the beautiful thing is that we now get to choose how to live our roles in that same story. The Communion of Saints is a powerful example for me, because they are the men and women that I most want to emulate. And few showed such love, compassion, and mercy in the midst of our modern world than John Paul II. There are worse examples to follow.
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