Newt Gingrich and John Paul II; Spain’s Catholic Voice
US Politician Documents 9 Days That Changed the World
By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, JUNE 17, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Over the past few months, mainstream media has done as much to sully the reputation of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as the BP oil spill has done to pollute the Gulf of Mexico.
The U.K. Telegraph and the New York Times have both been busily trying to tar these great Popes with their broad brush of sex abuse scandals, hoping to reduce their papacies to the same tawdry tenure of many politicians.
One politician, former house Speaker Newt Gingrich, well aware of how scandal can obscure great achievements, decided to highlight one of the great lasting contributions of Pope John Paul II in a documentary titled “Nine Days That Changed the World.”
Produced by Citizens United, an advocacy group active in promoting traditional American values, and hosted by Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista, the 94-minute film traces the historic visit of John Paul II to Poland the year after his election to the pontificate. The ramifications of the Pope’s visit were enormous and the film convincingly shows that those few days in Poland set in motion a series of events that would play a pivotal role in overthrowing Communist rule in Europe.
Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism a year ago, mostly through his wife’s witness and an encounter with Benedict XVI, presents the story as an extraordinary example of “freedom through faith.” Old video footage, interviews and location shots are expertly woven by director Kevin Knoblock into a smooth and compelling narrative.
In the film, George Weigel, author of the John Paul II biography “Witness to Hope,” explains the historical context of the visit, as well as the exciting interplay between the Communist regime and a Pope determined to awaken the Christian memory and identity of his people. Jerzy Kluger, the Pope’s childhood friend, offers insights into the sentiments of this remarkable Pontiff.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa discusses the role the visit played in the foundation of the Solidarity Movement, which would become the first recognized free trade union in the Communist bloc, counting over 10 million members by 1981.
Theologians Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych and Legionary of Christ Father Thomas Williams contextualize the spiritual meaning of the papal visit to a land that had been sucked dry of religion. John Paul II revived the faith of the Polish people, erecting crosses where they had been taken down, praying in places that seemed bereft of both hope and love, as in his visit to Auschwitz, and reminding the Polish people of Christianity’s rich history on their soil.
Many interviews with those who were present during the visit, even if just standing in the crowds in Warsaw, testify to the overwhelming influence John Paul II’s visit had on the third of the Polish population that came to see him. Pope John Paul II personally brought the Polish people the message he gave to the world on Oct. 22, 1978, days after his election: “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ. To his saving power upon the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid!”
A few interesting facts emerge in the story. Originally, John Paul II had asked to make a short two-day visit in May 1979, on the millennium anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, the 11th-century bishop of Krakow, who was martyred by the king of Poland after Stanislaus openly criticized his unjust and oppressive rule. The Communist authorities refused, fearing the effect of having the Pope addressing the Poles on that historic occasion. They compromised with a nine day visit in June instead, a decision they would live to regret.
The film is very moving on many levels. Seeing the charismatic and athletic John Paul II wooing and winning his people with words, gestures and warmth brings waves of loving nostalgia to all those who knew him. John Paul II’s deference to Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, primate of Poland, is particularly touching.
The filmmakers endorse the prevailing theory that the attempted assassination of John Paul II on May 13, 1981, by Mehmet Ali Agca (who recently was given space by the Associated Press for his criticisms of Benedict XVI) was really engineered by Communist leaders who perceived the Pope as their greatest threat. Former CIA director James Woolsey explains this connection in the film.
While the film is an uplifting triumph, there is one sad note. Two of the people interviewed for the film were on the plane carrying the Polish president, which crashed on April 10, 2010. One of the victims was Anna Walentynowicz, a Solidarity leader with Lech Walesa, whose testimony was one of the highlights of the film.
The “Nine Days that Changed the World” project is a heartening example of the great vocation of laypeople: a politician, using a solid study of history and the innovative dazzle of media, to recount the inspiring and uplifting truth.
For more information: www.ninedaysthatchangedtheworld.com