Mardi Gras has long since ended and New Orleans is deep into the solemn period of reflection known as Lent. In the 40 days between Carnival season and Easter, Catholics traditionally fast and pray to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. In New Orleans, like in many Catholic cities around the world, Lent is generally a time when locals look inward and reflect. This Lenten season, New Orleanians and visitors alike can experience Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art, a new exhibit memorializing the life of Pope John Paul II. Hosted by the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and organized by the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the exhibit commemorates the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to New Orleans through photography, video, sculpture, and sacred artifacts.
John Paul II was known as the “missionary Pope,” because he believed that Catholics should not have to travel to the Vatican in order to meet their Pope. He made it a priority to visit and meet Catholics of all cultures and walks of life. “[John Paul II] was a world leader and impacted people of all faiths and nationalities across the globe. His message of love and peace is truly for all,” said New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond at the exhibit opening on March 7. New Orleans religious leaders see the exhibit as an opportunity for young Catholics to connect with the history of their city and their faith.
As I walked through the exhibit, I was struck by the pairing of stark, bronze sculptures with vibrant murals. The artists who created these works hail from all over the world, lending to the sense of John Paul II as truly international spiritual leader.
Visitors to the exhibit also get a chance to view some of the Pope’s personal belongings, including his chair, several dishes, and a green chasuble, the liturgical garment he wore when celebrating mass. These items, though they may seem mundane, lend to a sense that, despite being a holy man, Pope John Paul II was truly a man like us, with human needs and responsibilities.
In the third room, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the large monstrance, a decorative vessel used to display the Eucharistic host. Catholics believe that the host is truly the body of Christ and should be treated with the utmost respect. The monstrance on display at NOMA is from the Eighth National Eucharistic Congress of 1938, which was held in New Orleans. At the time of the congress, local women were asked to donate jewelry to decorate the monstrance. Church officials planned to melt most of the jewels, but found some of them so beautiful that they incorporated them into the design. If you look closely, you can see bracelets, earrings, and necklaces, donated by the women of New Orleans and the surrounding areas.
As I stepped out of NOMA into sunny City Park, I couldn’t help but think about the New Orleanians of 1987 and 1938, who welcomed the Pope to this fine city.
Ticket prices for Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and active military, and $6 for children. Group rates are available. For more information, call 504-658-4100 or visit www.JPIIinNOLA.com. You can also find the exhibit on Facebook and on Twitter.
All photos by Ann Marshall Thomas