Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
The Communists were no match for St. John Paul II. He was the proverbial “one-man army” in action. But an army backed by heaven.
This is the focus of a new documentary called Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism.
On a video showing comments from viewers after the film’s premiere, one said: There was no way the Soviets could be contained by force — “It had to be contained by spiritual power.” Another said, “The biggest hero of our time, someone larger than life who accomplished the impossible, was Pope John Paul II the Great.”
Carl Anderson, the film's executive producer and Supreme Head of the Knights of Columbus who while serving as a White House office under President Reagan worked closely with John Paul II, said in a release: “The forceful spiritual dynamic that John Paul II brought behind the Iron Curtain was absolutely essential in the fall of communism.”
Anderson added, "Without his spiritual support, Solidarity's success would not have been possible, and without Solidarity, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Revolution of '89 would never have happened."
The documentary (JP2Film.com) is compelling and ultimately soars as it follows John Paul II from his seminarian day to his papacy in 1978, then through his epic pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979, his major role in the firm resolve of Poland’s Solidarity, the crumbling of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the final collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991. There’s even a riveting timeline with photos on the JP2Film website.
On every count, Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism is triumphant. Actor Jim Caviezel narrates the 90-minute film which has original music by Hollywood composer Joe Kraemer.
David Naglieri wrote and directed it. An Emmy nominee, Naglieri has done several films on religious subjects from Pius XII to Guadalupe: The Miracle and the Message, also narrated by Caviezel. He shared insights about this new film for the Register with me recently.
What is a major focus or theme in the film?
I think one of the central themes in our film is the idea that what determines the fate of nations is not just driven by political and economic factors. Individuals who are emboldened by a sense of their own dignity, and who embrace the moral duties that true freedom requires, can change the course of history.
How are some ways you bring that out?
In the 1980s this is what transpired with the birth of the Solidarity movement, one year after John Paul II travelled to his homeland and inspired a spirit of courage and renewed hope. We also sought to capture this same spirit in the brave men and women who made a stand during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in the Maidan, standing up for moral virtues as the foundations of a democracy. In this way we showed the continued relevance of this core truth and John Paul II understood and which helped him bring down an evil Empire.
It’s amazing that you even use archival footage in this film that’s never been seen before. In what other ways your film is different than previous ones on John Paul II?
We felt as though our film presents many new and interesting insights into the history of Pope John Paul II’s impact on the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe.
While other films have focused more exclusively on the 1979 pilgrimage and subsequent birth of the Solidarity movement, we sought to expand the story and trace John Paul II's impact on other nations in the region as well. In that pursuit we travelled to the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Ukraine and interviewed many luminaries including two former heads of State in Lithuania, Cardinal [Miloslav] Vlk of Prague who was a leading anti-Communist figure, and Marek Benda, a prominent Czech politician whose father was instrumental in the faith-based resistance movement of the 1980’s. Therefore, our film attempted to present a broader perspective on the spirit of freedom unleashed by John Paul II’s behind the Iron Curtain.
You interviewed an amazing lineup of 37 people — like Carl Anderson, supreme head of the Knights of Columbus; biographer George Weigel; Hanna Suchocka, Poland’s prime minister under president Lech Wałęsa; His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; Joaquín Navarro-Valls, director of the Holy See press office in that major time; heads of state, and prominent church figures like Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, his close friend and personal secretary.
Some have commented that Cardinal Stanislaw Dzwisz’s statement in the film that John Paul II had a “conviction that the order came from Moscow” was the most declarative statement ever made on the topic by someone privy to John Paul’s most private thoughts. The film includes interesting insights and observations.
Dr. Norman Davies discusses how the 1980 Olympics and the distribution of TV antennae indirectly helps John Paul’s message spread behind the Iron Curtain; former Reagan national security advisor Richard Allen recounts watching the 1979 pilgrimage with Reagan at his ranch in California and how the future President had tears in his eyes and expressed that he knew from that moment that Communism’s days were numbered.
Another important distinction in our film is how we sought to demonstrate the continued impact of John Paul’s cores message and teachings. For example, in the film Cardinal Dzwisz expresses his conviction that the roots of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine can be traced back to June of 1979 when Pope John Paul II travelled to Gniezno and proclaimed the importance of maintaining the spiritual unity of Christian Europe. Furthermore, the seed of awareness that Ukraine has a Christian and European orientation, and that it must resist any post-Soviet heritage of corruption and violence, was sown with John Paul's II trip to Ukraine in 2001, a topic we explored in the film’s conclusion.
You certainly explore and bring to light this part of St. John Paul II’s story in an insightful and fascinating way.
While there have been many wonderful films made about Pope John Paul II over the years, we felt as though the legacy of Pope John Paul II provides so much depth and richness that it is a story worth exploring in new and dynamic ways. That is why we sought out Jim Caviezel as the narrator, and collaborated with Hollywood composer Joe Kraemer on the powerful score. The film also features compelling graphics and animation by Visual Effects Artist Robin Hobart whose past work includes the Academy Award-winning documentary film The Fog of War.
Is there something the film brings out about JPII that we might have either not known or simply forgotten about? Or something that helps us know him better, and hopefully be inspired by him in yet another way?
The film features an interview with Dr. Stanislaw Grygiel, a philosopher and close personal friend of John Paul's. He reveals several interesting insights into the Pope's thinking. For example, on the question of the centrality of truth in the Pope's thinking, Grygiel recounts once asking John Paul in a private conversation if all Scriptures were destroyed and but one sentence could be salvaged, what would the Pope choose. John Paul responded without any hesitation, "Truth will set you free."
Following the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul II’s life, Grygiel again spoke to the Holy Father and expressed how God must have a plan but that was treating the Pope cruelly. John Paul said, “There is nothing more beautiful than to be a tool in the hands of God.”
These intimate personal insights revealed in the film helped us create a three-dimensional portrait of John Paul II, exploring his biography and role on the world stage--but also revealing some of his most intimate thoughts and hopes.
Your hopes for the film?
What we hope viewers take away from this film is a realization that the witness of John Paul II, and the role he played in the fall of Communism, should not be something that strikes us momentarily and then fades from memory.
Rather, his witness to authentic freedom, the dignity of each and every human person, and the need for morality as the foundation for our political and economic systems, are all teachings that should help form our consciences and inform our actions as citizens.
This film’s aim is as simple as it is far reaching. It is to demonstrate to this and future generations that what determines the fate of nations is not just political and economic factors. Individuals who are emboldened by a sense of their own dignity, and who embrace the moral duties that true freedom requires, can change the course of history. That is a history lesson that we can never forget.
Will the film air on EWTN anytime soon?
We have a two-year exclusive contract with Public TV in the USA. After that concludes we will definitely make the film available to EWTN and all Catholic TV Networks.