GINGRICH: I’d like to thank Leonard Leo, President of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast for the opportunity to be here today.
I must confess that while I have given many speeches the prospect of a convert addressing an audience with this many years experience in Catholicism is among the most daunting I have faced. Callista likes to point out that unlike her father I have not participated in enough Knights of Columbus pancake breakfasts to justify giving a speech like this.
I hope you will welcome me home and permit this relatively new convert to share a few thoughts about John Paul the Great.
As we gather to celebrate the beatification of Pope John Paul II that will take place in Rome on Sunday, it is an honor to share with you the history of the Pope’s nine-day pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. This was one of the most historic events of our time – creating a revolution of conscience that transformed Poland and fundamentally reshaped the spiritual and political landscape of the 20th century.
Callista and I capture this historic pilgrimage in our documentary, Nine Days that Changed the World. Amidst a Communist dictatorship, Pope John Paul II reminded the Polish people that freedom and human potential could only be achieved through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Callista and I first learned about the significance of Pope John Paul II’s nine-day pilgrimage in 2008, when we were conducting interviews for our documentary about President Ronald Reagan.
We traveled to Gdansk, Poland to interview President Lech Walesa, and then to Prague to visit with President Vaclav Havel. In both interviews, we asked what had been the decisive event in bringing about the end of Communism.
We were expecting anecdotes about President Ronald Reagan since we were making a movie about him. Instead, both men replied in virtually identical words. The key moment, they said, was eighteen months before Reagan’s election. It was June 2, 1979 when Pope John Paul II returned home to Poland.
Both presidents described the Holy Father’s role as critical and agreed that his 1979 pilgrimage to Poland was the decisive turning point in the liberation of Eastern Europe. Since Callista’s father’s family is from Poland and she is a devout Catholic, we decided this was a story we had to tell.
We were encouraged in this decision by Vince Haley who has been the intellectual and spiritual force behind telling this story. We turned once again to our partners in documentary movie making, Dave Bossie of Citizens United and Kevin Knoblock of Peace River productions. They realized this would be the biggest and most complex film we had undertaken, but they too were intrigued with the power of the story of these nine days. Finally, the movie was dramatically enhanced by the work of Dr. Peter Latona and the Choir of the Basilica who provide such a deeply religious musical environment for the film.
Before I discuss the movie in more detail, I’d like to share with you a little about my own faith journey to Catholicism to help explain the impact Pope John Paul II had on my life.
People ask me when I decided to become Catholic.
It would be more accurate to say that I gradually became Catholic and then realized one day that I should accept the faith that surrounded me.
My wife, Callista, is a lifelong Catholic and has sung for the past fifteen years with the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
My faith journey began at the Basilica.
Spending time with the choir, listening to Callista sing every Sunday at Mass, and getting to know Monsignor Rossi, Rector of the Basilica, over the last several years has been one of the great blessings of my life.
In 2005, I accompanied Callista and the Basilica Choir to Rome where they were recording a CD in honor of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. During this trip, I had ample time to talk at length with Monsignor Rossi.
I had recently read George Weigel’s, The Cube and the Cathedral. This small book captured perfectly the crisis of European civilization as militant, government-imposed secularism undermines and weakens Christianity. His earlier work, The Final Revolution, demonstrated the role of the Church in developing an alternative structure of spiritual life in Eastern Europe to compete directly with Communist atheism as a path to a better life and better society.
As Monsignor Rossi and I discussed the crisis of secularism in Europe and the growth of a government-favored pagan culture to replace Christianity, a terrible parallel grew in my mind between what had been happening in Europe for the last century and what is now happening in the United States.
The American elites are guided by their desire to emulate the European elites and, as a result, anti-religious values and principles are coming to dominate the academic, news media, and judicial class in America.
Let me give you just one small example of the secular pressures. There is now a convention in scientific publications to replace Anno Domini (AD) with common era (CE). This is an entirely artificial and intellectually incoherent dating system. There is no common era. The year 2011 is a Christian date. This year is 5771 in the Hebrew tradition. It is 1432 anno Hegirae in the Islamic calendar. It is Vikram Samvat 2067 in the most commonly used Hindu calendar. And of course, in remembrance of the first great anti-Christian (and failed) revolution, it is 219 in the French Revolutionary calendar. Factual honesty would lead the scientific community to revert to AD as their designator but secular cultural pressure rejects recognition of the Christian calendar in favor of an artificial replacement.
The courts have been especially powerful engines of coerced secularization. From the 1962 school prayer decision on, there has been a decisive break with the essentially religious nature of historic American civilization. As Justice Stewart Potter said in his dissent to the Court’s 1963 decision in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, which held that it was unconstitutional to read the Bible in school or recite the Lord’s Prayer: “a refusal to permit religious exercises thus is seen not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism.”
The Ninth Circuit Court ruling that saying “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional was yet another example of the coercive secularism dominating our courts.
The case of the Mojave Desert Cross is an equally revealing example of the fanaticism of the secularists. You have to drive three and a half hours out of Los Angeles on Interstate 15 into the desert and turn south on a two lane highway for another eight miles to get to the site of a cross first erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1934 to commemorate those who died in World War One fighting for America.
One National Park Ranger was offended at a cross on public land in the middle of the desert. The Ninth Circuit held it was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court overruled on the grounds that it was an historic site. Almost immediately secular fanatics stole the cross. The head of the National Park Service has said he would not erect a replacement. So even when religious freedom wins in court the secular extremists have found new ways to circumvent the Court and impose their anti-religious bigotry.
I found the constant secular pressure more and more troublesome.
Callista and I have two grandchildren. The more I thought about the culture they are surrounded by and the direction of that culture’s evolution, the more troubled I became.
The more I looked at this historic phenomenon, the more I had to come to grips with my own beliefs and my own tolerance of the increasingly aggressive secularization of our country.
At the same time, I continued my conversations with Monsignor Rossi.
The depth of faith and history contained in the life of the Catholic Church were increasingly apparent to me. Slowly, over a decade, the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic Mass became more and more obvious to me.
In April 2008, Callista’s choir was asked to sing for Pope Benedict XVI at the Basilica as he presided over Solemn Vespers, and I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the service.
For me, the joyful and radiating presence of the Holy Father was a moment of confirmation about the many things I had been thinking and experiencing over the last several years.
Pope Benedict’s message of “Christ our Hope” was exactly right. It captured in three words the
heart of the salvation Christianity offers.
That evening I told Monsignor Rossi I wanted to be received into the Church and he agreed to join Callista as my sponsor. Under his tutelage, I studied the Catechism of the Church.
Before being received into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church, I joined a diverse group of over 2,000 Catechumens in a wonderful service at the Basilica led by then Archbishop Wuerl.
I truly felt part of the universal church.
The faith I felt that day is a key part of the Church’s mission on earth.
It is this same transforming power of faith that had an enormous impact in Poland during Pope John Paul the II’s extraordinary nine-day visit in June of 1979.
To appreciate the enormous transformational power of the Pope’s visit you have to remember the tragedy of Polish history and the continuous anti-religious war imposed by the Soviet Union.
Poland had been invaded by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. During the five years of Nazi occupation one out of every five Poles was killed. After the war the Soviet Empire imposed an anti-religious totalitarian dictatorship. As one Polish scholar says in “Nine Days,” it was an “everyday grayness of life without hope.”
George Weigel commented there were never any truces between the dictatorship and the Church. As he put it “it was all war all the time.”
It was in this constant conflict with the Nazi and Soviet occupations that Pope John Paul II was shaped. He studied to be a priest when that carried a death sentence from the Nazis. He lived every day in the knowledge he could be killed. He then worked as a priest within a Soviet dictatorship of endless hostility.
There are profound reasons his first great statement as Pope was “be not afraid.”
As one Pole says in “Nine Days” when the Pope said “be not afraid,” suddenly the people were not afraid. Now it was the government who was afraid.
While Moscow wanted to block the Pope’s visit the Polish Communists knew it was impossible. The country would have erupted in total rebellion if they had blocked the first Polish Pope in history from coming home on a pilgrimage.
When Pope John Paul II stepped off the plane on June 2, 1979 he set in motion nine days of meetings, Masses, rallies, and witnessing which would ultimately transform Poland, Eastern Europe and finally the entire Soviet Empire.
That first morning in Victory Square, three million Poles gathered for Mass. As they looked at each other, they realized, “there are more of us than there are of them.”
Them was the government.
One of the keys to our movie was Vince Haley, who is in New Orleans today with the National Catholic Educational Association sharing a student study guide for Nine Days that Changed the World . Vince was the intellectual driving force who felt this pilgrimage had to be captured on film. He discovered that the Polish Bishops had also wanted to capture the real events. They distrusted the Soviet media which they were convinced would have an anti-Catholic bias. Therefore the Bishops had given away cameras and had hundreds of hours of film that had never been seen by the public.
Vince was able to get access to the archives and we received the Bishops’ permission to include remarkable footage in our movie.
At one point in the opening Mass on June 2, 1979, three million people break into applause. They are so overjoyed at worshipping in public with their Pope that they applaud and applaud. The applause lasted for 14 minutes. As one Polish witness asserts in the movie, “I would say it was like in America, we the people, the beginning of the American constitution. In Poland we had this feeling, this experience of recovering our self confidence.”
For nine days the Holy Father crisscrossed Poland evangelizing and teaching.
For nine days the people of Poland watched, listened and participated.
One out of every three Poles attended Mass or a rally with the Pope.
Virtually every Pole listened and watched, and listened to him on television and radio for nine days.
By the end of his pilgrimage something decisive had changed.
Salvation had come both for the Polish people and the Polish nation.
But the struggle for freedom would take ten more years.
On June 4, 1989, ten years and two days after the Pope first landed in Warsaw, Poland held the first free election in the Soviet Empire.
Five months later, the Berlin Wall fell. Two years after that, the Soviet Union disappeared.
These nine days had truly changed the world.
Callista and I believe Nine Days that Changed the World is a movie with universal meaning for every country and every generation.
It is already available in English and Polish and we hope to bring it out in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Italian.
A Universal Church should eventually have a universal film about this miraculous moment in time and this extraordinary spiritual leader.
We believe young people will be particularly impressed and moved by the dynamic image of the younger Pope John Paul II and his charismatic leadership in 1979.
Finally we believe this movie is directly relevant to America today and to our crisis of culture and civilization.
May the soon to be “Blessed” John Paul II intercede for each of us, so that like him, we too will be a positive, evangelizing influence in today’s world.
I am grateful to Leonard Leo and the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. Thank you for allowing me to share this message with you.