Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich visited Fordham on Feb. 10 to convey a profound message of faith, as it was epitomized through Pope John Paul II.
Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism, teamed up with his wife, Callista, and others to co-produce Nine Days that Changed the World, a 2010 documentary that chronicles the pontiff’s return to his native Poland in 1979 and the revolution of conscience that it inspired in the nation’s Catholics living under communism. The film was shown to a near capacity audience in the Keating First auditorium, followed by a reception and book/DVD signing by the Gingriches in the Mozilo Rotunda.
The 90-minute film detailed the spiritual and chronological journey of Karol Józef Wojtyla, a brilliant student who came into adulthood during the 1939 German occupation. Wojtyla and other Poles were forced into compulsory labor by the Nazis. While he worked in a stone quarry, Wojtyla kept his spirit alive by forming an underground theatre company where he employed art and words to counter a culture of repression.
Wojtyla joined the priesthood around the time that the nation came under Soviet domination. His rise within the Catholic Church hierarchy was swift and, by the 1960s, he was an auxiliary bishop with a reputation for speaking out against government repression of the church.
Wojtyla’s election as Pope in 1978 was such a shock to the Soviets that when Policy Communist Party Secretary Edward Gierek heard the news, he reportedly said, “Jesus and Mary, this is the end!”
John Paul II returned to Poland, inspiring the nation’s million Catholics with his call to “be not afraid” to embrace their identity and religion. One-third of the nation saw him in person. Millions saw him on television and radio.
Although Kremlin authorities had ordered 20,000 undercover officers to monitor his visit, they could do nothing to silence him as he spoke to millions in Warsaw Square. His message inspired a populist movement that ultimately led to labor uprisings and the eventual toppling of the country’s Communist government in 1989. Soon after, the Berlin Wall also fell, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“One man came along at a decisive moment and changed a historic path from tyranny to freedom, and from secular atheism to faith in God,” said Callista Gingrich, whose grandmother was a Polish citizen. “That man was Pope John Paul II, who called upon the Holy Spirit to descend and change the face of the Earth.”
Newt Gingrich said that he was led to make the movie quite serendipitously: While making a film about President Ronald Reagan, Gingrich interviewed former Polish president Lech Walesa and former president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, about what the signature moment was in bringing down the Soviet empire. Both told him it was most certainly the Pope’s 1979 visit.
“Beyond history, the underlying lessons of this movie are universal and timeless,” he continued. “The Pope’s key statement in his first homily, ‘Be not afraid,’ relates to all of us. After all, if you have faith in God, why would you be afraid? The Pope’s belief that freedom is based on faith relates as much to the United States, whose founding document says we are endowed by our creator.
“The Pope’s assertion that no government can come between a man and God is just as important for our Supreme Court, and for our system of government, as it was in Poland.”
The Gingriches were introduced by Mario M. Kranjac Esq. (GSB ’87, LAW ’90). It was Gingrich’s second visit to Fordham; he spoke in April 2009 at a well-attended event co-sponsored by the Fordham University College Republicans.
Through their company, Citizens United, the Gingriches host and produce historical and public policy documentaries. Other films include, America at Risk, Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny,Rediscovering God in America, Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage and We Have the Power.