NINE DAYS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
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The Pope Who Defeated an Evil Empire
In a new film, Newt and Callista Gingrich tell the remarkable story of how John Paul II sparked a revolution in Poland that spread through Eastern Europe and led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Most people know that President Ronald Reagan put an end to the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union. But most people do not know that the spark that led to the collapse of communism ignited 12 years earlier, when Pope John Paul II paid his first visit to his native Poland after ascending to the papacy.
Now a new documentary hosted by Newt and Callista Gingrich, Nine Days that Changed the World, recounts, in stirring detail, that visit and its profound effects.
Sixteen months after the Pope’s visit, Poles formed a union called Solidarity, allowing them to organize free from state control. Ultimately a chain of events unfolded that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s acquiescence to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nine Days tells this story. The Gingriches narrate the 94-minute film, but they played a greater role, helping produce the documentary through their company, Gingrich Productions, and providing concepts, introductions, and backing.
The film reminds Americans that freedom does not come easily for many. When the Vatican announced that the Pope planned to travel to Poland in June of 1979, Soviet authorities were aghast. Religion had no place in the communist system. The emergence of a religious leader threatened Soviet control of the country.
But the Soviets figured that banning the Pope from his native land would lead to even more disastrous consequences, so they allowed the visit to proceed.
During the whirlwind nine-day tour, a third of the country turned out to see the Pope. Almost the entire rest of the country was glued to their televisions. The beloved pontiff’s words gave Poles courage and hope, leading them to recognize that they could free themselves from the shackles of communism. Time magazine chronicled the human impact of the event: “Returning to his homeland for the first time since he was chosen Pope last October, Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, stirred an outpouring of trust and affection that no political leader in today’s world could hope to inspire, let alone command.”
The film, which David Bossie of Citizens United co-produced with Gingrich Productions, and Kevin Knoblock directed, is available on DVD from www.ninedaysthatchangedtheworld.com. It includes interviews with many of the participants in the historic drama, including Lech Walesa, who started Solidarity, and Václav Havel, who became president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. The Pope’s Jewish boyhood friend, Jerzy Kluger, also contributes his insights.
For Jews, the movie’s emotional climax is the Pope’s denunciation of anti-Semitism and his meeting with survivors of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Like the collapse of the Soviet Union, the movie has antecedents going back a long way.
When Newt married Callista in 2000, the former speaker of the House was a Southern Baptist. Callista, a lifelong Roman Catholic, sang in the professional choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the largest Catholic church in the country.
Newt began joining Callista when she attended Sunday Mass. “After about eight years, I realized that I had become Catholic, and then I decided to convert,” Newt told me at the reception for Nine Days that Changed the World at the Ford Orientation Center at George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon. “After being there and participating in the homilies, I realized that I felt genuinely comfortable and at home.” In March 2009, Newt converted to Catholicism.
Meanwhile, after Callista visited Rome with the Choir of the Basilica, the Gingriches began thinking about the impact of the Pope’s visit. Newt had been reading George Weigel’s book, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism. While filming another documentary, Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny, Newt and Callista’s thoughts about producing a film on the Pope’s visit began to crystallize. The Gingriches began to see parallels between issues under communism and increasing secularism in America.
In opening reception remarks, Newt and Callista recalled efforts in the United States to remove references to religion from public life. “History introduces us to concepts that we can relate to today,” Newt observes. “We want people to apply the insights of the film to themselves.”