Newt Gingrich and John Paul II; Spain's Catholic Voice

US Politician Documents 9 Days That Changed the World

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 17, 2010 ( 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.

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Pilgrims’ land

Many were startled last week to read in ZENIT that on June 10, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero visited Pope Benedict XVI for a half hour. Given that Zapatero has actively promoted abortion and secularism in Spain, it would seem the two would have little to discuss. Indeed for the most part, the visit was in keeping with custom, as Zapatero is the outgoing president of the European Union; the president usually sees the Bishop of Rome to evaluate his mandate.

Zapatero and Benedict XVI met in Valencia in 2006 and even though there is reason to believe that was enough for the Spanish politician, it seems that Benedict can’t get enough of Spain. Zapatero will have two more opportunities to see the Roman Pontiff in the near future, one in Madrid in August 2011 and one this coming November when Benedict XVI will arrive for his pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James the Greater in Compostela, which is celebrating a Jubilee this year.

Unfortunately for Zapatero’s secularist agenda, he governs a land that fought hard 900 years ago to gain the status of being one of the world’s principal pilgrimage sites. After Jerusalem and Rome, in 1100, the shrine of St. James the Greater saw the greatest flux of pilgrims from all over the known world.

Pilgrims to the shrine have often brought back a little souvenir, the shell of a mollusk that is native to those waters. They would tie the shell to their robes as a symbol of their long journey. That same shell can still be found on the coat of arms of Benedict XVI, leader of the «pilgrim people of God.»

The Jacobean Year occurs when the feast of St. James (July 25) falls on a Sunday. On Jan 1, the archbishop of Santiago, Julián Barrio Barrio, inaugurated the Holy Year by opening the Holy Door, and pilgrims have been steadily streaming along the famed Camino di Santiago, the route leading across Europe to the shrine of St. James.

In the Charlemagne Wing of St. Peter’s Basilica, a new exhibit shines a little light on this historic pilgrimage site, which cemented the bond between Spain and Rome almost a millennium ago. Open until Aug. 1, and free to the public, «The Road to Santiago» displays maps, sculptures and richly decorated reliquaries along with manuscripts testifying to the establishment of this important center.

Considered the «finis terrae» — the end of the world — the little village of Compostela stood on the western coast of Spain looking out over the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. When pilgrims reached this point, they had walked until they could walk no more. According to tradition, the body of Apostle James the Greater was brought to Compostela from Jerusalem in the ninth century.

The shrine contain
ing these precious relics was a relatively small chapel surrounded by walls to protect the site from incursions from pirates and Normans, until it was rebuilt starting in 1070 (simultaneously with the introduction of the Roman rite) and continuing into the 12th century, to make it more pilgrim friendly. Modeled after the great pilgrimage basilicas of St. Foy and Conques in France, the new church was much larger and had a very wide apse to allow access to the relics as well as radiating chapels in the apse to keep the flow of pilgrims constant.

This early model of Romanesque art came from the voyages of the bishops of Compostela through France to Rome, in particular the travels of Diego Gelminez, bishop of Compostela from 1101 to 1140. The decorative capitals carved in stone like those of ancient Rome, boast biblical scenes or imaginative allegories like those Gelminez had seen in Cluny.

His earlier trips to Rome had been fraught with danger, as these were the years of the blockade of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV against reforming Pope Gregory VII. On one occasion, Gelminez has to disguise himself as a soldier and slip among the emperor’s troops to make his way to Rome.

The efforts were worth it however, since Pope Callistus II raised Compostela to the status of archdiocese. Each trip inspired Gelminez to add a little more Romanitas to his church. He added a confession like St. Peter’s and elegant stone reliefs like those still scattered around the ruins of Rome. As pilgrims reached the end of the world to venerate the remains of the apostle who had died in Jerusalem, they would feel a little bit of the Eternal City in the architecture and decoration, particularly in the use of stone, a reminder of the Rock, St. Peter, buried in Rome.

The colored displays recall the stained glass that would soon become the rage throughout Europe, but the display is very small with just a few works and an interesting video presentation. A short visit suffices, but it surprises visitors to see how closely Spain was once tied to Rome: without airplanes or Internet or phones, just faith.

Much like the memory of St. Stanislaus helped Pope John Paul II rejuvenate the religious sentiment of Poland, one hopes that through the historic shrine to the remains of the Apostle and Martyr James the Greater, and the legacy of Bishop Diego Gelmirez, Benedict XVI will be able help the Spanish rediscover their Christian voice.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached

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