“What really destroyed the Soviet empire wasn’t anti-communism. It was pro-Christianity,” said former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, addressing a crowd of more than 700 Franciscan University of Steubenville students, faculty and community members.
“It was the belief in the cross,” he said, “and the belief that every person could shelter beneath the cross, and that no state could forcibly deny that, no matter what they did to you.”
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, visited Franciscan University in mid-November to make that argument, or, more specifically, to screen the documentary “Nine Days that Changed the World,” which makes the argument for them.
Pope John Paul’s role
Produced and hosted by the Gingriches, the film tells the story of Pope John Paul II’s June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland and the chain reaction it sparked, culminating in the downfall of Soviet rule 10 years later.
Callista Gingrich said the idea for the film originated in 2008 when the couple were filming “Rendezvous with Destiny,” a documentary on President Ronald Reagan.
“At the time, we interviewed Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “In each of those interviews we asked them about John Paul II’s role in defeating Soviet-style communism. And it was clear to each of these presidents that he had a very significant role. So we thought, ‘This is an important story we need to share.’”
The Gingriches spent much of 2009 interviewing historians, biographers, theologians and witnesses. The result is a film that reveals the role the Catholic faith played in destroying one of the 20th century’s great totalitarian regimes.
“Nine Days that Changed the World” depicts how, as millions turned out to hear the Polish pope speak, those who longed for a different, more free Poland realized for the first time in 35 years that they were not alone. In that realization, the film shows, the Polish people rediscovered their own dignity and learned not to be afraid. They found courage and hope, which quickly took on a concrete form in the Solidarity Movement, the anti-communist trade union that eventually ended Soviet rule in Poland and sparked similar revolutions throughout the Eastern bloc.
But, as Newt Gingrich stressed, that historical fact is not known or recognized by many in the West today.
“When you finish seeing this film, you will be startled at how great a role Christianity played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, because it is so different from the secular press coverage and the secular historical analysis that rejects the centrality of faith,” he explained.
Parallels to present
The discovery of that truth is somewhat new to Newt Gingrich as well. After his fall from power and grace in the late 1990s, and his subsequent marriage to Callista, a Polish Catholic, he came to recognize the role the Christian faith played in shaping the history of America and the West. That led to the questioning of his own choices and beliefs, and finally to his conversion to Catholicism in 2009. That conversion coincided with his work on “Nine Days that Changed the World.”
“I was amazed to discover how much John Paul had lived through,” he told OSV. “The fact that he joined the Rhapsodic Theatre when it was a death penalty offense, and then he became a student priest when it was a death penalty offense, and became a priest when Soviet dictatorship began — the level of courage he lived out, the degree to which ‘Be not afraid’ was about his life, was very stunning, very attractive and very powerful.”
It’s the power of that witness that the Gingriches believe makes “Nine Days that Changed the World” so relevant for Catholics in America today.
“We have a growing secularism in this country,” Callista Gingrich said. “We see it on many levels, in the opposition to school prayer, when crosses are covered and taken down, when its easier to be an atheist in the classroom and newsroom than to be a believer in Jesus Christ. There are many parallels in the U.S. today to Poland in 1979.”
Making the film was their way of spreading “John Paul’s inspiring message that no state or government can come between you and God, that true freedom can only be achieved and sustained by faith.”
Since April, when the film was released, the Gingriches have made an effort to screen it at Catholic universities.
The reason for that, Callista Gingrich said, is because “it’s important that young people realize through faith and courage they can overcome seemingly difficult things in their life, things they wouldn’t otherwise overcome.”
Kenneth Wear, chairman of humanities and Catholic social thought at Franciscan, believes that message is particularly important to college students.
He explained: “The people of my generation growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as our parents and grandparents, understood as a society that we were in an existential struggle, a struggle between people who lived freely and those who were not permitted to do so. We also understood that we might pay with our very existence, as individuals and as a society, for holding true to our values.”
That recognition and an understanding of a struggle that is still ongoing, albeit in a different form, Wear continued, is something both the culture in general and young people in particular no longer have but very much need.
And the film gives that to them.
“It concretely makes the connection between the teachings of the Church, the activities of the Holy Father, and the practical aspects of politics and everyday life,” he said.
Seeing those connections was Newt Gingrich’s challenge to Franciscan’s students.
“As you listen to the pope’s message, and as you see the remarkable situation he finds himself in, I would urge you to think about your life and your country,” he said. “When we talk about how difficult some of our struggles are, think back to what you’ll see tonight. John Paul II grew up in much greater danger, facing much greater threats and came out of that saying, ‘Be not afraid.’”
“The movie [convinced] me that we have to fight to keep our faith and fight for life,” said freshman Lindsay Barry. “I cried through the whole thing.”
“We’ve dealt with the materialism of communism,” added graduate student Joseph Spencer. “But now we need to deal with the relativism and materialism in our own culture. That’s our challenge now.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. For information, visit www.ninedaysthatchangedtheworld.com.