WASHINGTON – Unrelenting faith in God was the crucial tool President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II used to destroy the great evil of the 20th century – communism. So contends Paul Kengor, a political science professor and best-selling author of the newly released book “A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.”
Kengor noted in a speech at the Heritage Foundation Thursday that members of Soviet military intelligence attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
The primary goal of communists, Kengor, explained, is to abolish religion.
Religion “is what Marx called ‘the opiate of the masses,’ what Lenin called the ‘necrophilia of religion.’ Lenin said, ‘There is nothing more abominable than religion.’ The Soviets hated religion. Mikhail Gorbachev said they declared a war on religion,” Kengor explained.
“They blew up churches, they jailed priests and nuns, Russian orthodox, Roman Catholics, rabbis – they persecuted everybody, unbelievable. The Moscow church trials turned churches into warehouses, museums to atheism. The world had never seen anything like it.”
After nearly six decades of this war on religion, the College of Cardinals in Rome on Oct. 16, 1978, selected Karol Jozef Wojtyla to be the next pope. Wojtyla, who changed his name to John Paul II upon becoming the pope, was Polish, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
Poland was “the only country in the Soviet bloc where the war on religion had failed again, again and again,” Kengor said. “They picked the next pope, the first Slavic pope, ever – I mean, imagine that.”
While Poles were ecstatic with news of the first-ever Polish pope, Moscow immediately viewed John Paul II as an imminent threat to communist dominion.
Yet, John Paul II faced communist intimidation head on.
“For his first homily, October 22, 1978, that’s when the new pope, John Paul II, said those famous words, the most often repeated words in the New Testament: ‘Be not afraid. Open the doors to Christ, open them wide, open the border states, open the borders, open the economic and political systems, the vast domains of culture.’
“In reaction to [Moscow leadership], the pope announced that his first visit was going to be to Poland, the heart of the Soviet bloc,” Kengor said.
John Paul II’s homily on that June 2 was at Warsaw’s Victory Square. He boldly repudiated communists; attempts to ban religion, foreshadowing the day 10 years later when Poland would hold free elections.
John Paul II stated in the speech: “Christ cannot be kept in the history of man in any part of the globe. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ, it is impossible to understand the history of Poland.”
The Kremlin wanted to eliminate Pope John Paul II because Poland was the linchpin of the Soviet bloc and his influence as the first Polish pope posed a threat to communist domination of the country, Kengor explained.
While historians credit President Reagan and Pope John Paul II with hastening the end of the Cold War, they have failed to recognize the depth or significance of the bond that developed between the two leaders, Kengor argued.
Reagan, before becoming the president, viewed John Paul II’s leadership as essential to destroying the atheistic Soviet bloc, because “if communism were to collapse in Poland, it would collapse everywhere.”
Reagan first watched footage of the pope’s visit to Poland, saw huge crowds and “tears were in his eyes,’” Kengor explained. “He said; ‘That’s it, that’s it, that’s it – the pope is the key. We’ve got to reach out to the pope and the Vatican and make them an ally. We’ve got to get elected.’
“Reagan knew that Poland would be the linchpin in the dissolution of Soviet empire,” he continued. “He felt that if you could put a wedge in Poland you could take down the entire communist bloc. Now all he’s gotta do is win the presidency. All the pope’s got to do is survive.”
After Reagan was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 1981, Moscow immediately feared an alliance between the new president and the new pope, he said.
“The Soviet press attacked John Paul II as a ‘malicious, perfidious, and backward’ toady of American militarists, seeking to undermine communism with his ‘overseas accomplices’ and ‘new boss in the White House,’” Kengor said.
On March 30, 1981, Moscow almost got its wish of eradicating President Reagan when lone gunman John Hinckley attempted to assassinate him.
“Everyone remembers Reagan was shot. John Paul was shot. Everyone forgets it was this close together,” Kengor said. “Both felt the need to forgive their shooters.”
Reagan told his pastor that if he didn’t forgive his shooter at that moment, God was going to take him. He believed his survival was conditional upon forgiving his shooter.
Reagan later wrote in his diary: “Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breath it seemed I was getting less & less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”
Six weeks later, Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981, the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. John Paul II immediately was struck by the irony of those two dates, Kengor noted, and would come to see a direct connection, especially once he requested to see and then read the Third Secret of Fatima on July 18, 1981.
According to Catholic faith, Mary appeared from May 13 to Oct 13, 1917, predicting:
- The end of one world war and the beginning of another
- The rise of communism, with Bolshevik Russia spreading “errors”
- An attack on a bishop in white
“When John Paul finished [reading the Third Secret], all his remaining doubts were gone,” Kengor said, “and he became convinced that his life had been spared thanks to the intervention of Our Lady.”
The Soviets had feared a bond would develop between the pope and the American president, and the coinciding assassination attempts on the two leaders solidified that bond.
Moscow denied it had anything to do with the shooting of John Paul II. In fact, Moscow accused the CIA of being behind the attempted assassination.
Under CIA Director William Casey’s direction, a thorough investigation of Agca was conducted, and it produced a sensitive report that to this day hasn’t been released.
But Reagan speechwriter William Safire later obtained some details, calling it “the crime of the century,” Kengor noted.
“The Kremlin ordered that John Paul II be shot, specifically the Soviet GRU, military intelligence of the Soviet Union. John Paul’s reaction was that he wasn’t surprised; he figured that they were in on it,” he said. “He told Casey and Reagan: ‘Don’t release this information, it’s too volatile.’ He also feared that if he accused the Soviets of this, they would just launch an information campaign saying that they didn’t do it.”
The collapse of communism happened in 1989 when the Berlin Wall went down and Poland held free and fair elections.
After leaving office, Reagan maintained that his greatest ally in the battle against communism was John Paul II.
“Reagan met at his office in Century City, California – he was no longer president at that point – with Polish Solidarity Movement members who wanted to thank him for what he did and get his advice on the elections coming up. Reagan of all things said to them, ‘Here’s my advice, listen to your conscience, because that is where the Holy Spirit speaks to you,’” Kengor explained. “Then he pointed to a picture of John Paul II on the shelf and said, ‘He’s my best friend.’”
Kengor said: “What he meant by that, wasn’t that he was truly his best friend – but in this battle of a lifetime against the forces of this atheistic communism, he saw no better best friend than John Paul II.”