VATICAN CITY — Nine Days That Changed the World, a new movie produced by recent Catholic convert Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, is a compelling biopic of Pope John Paul II, powerfully showing the importance and relevance of the Catholic faith to freedom and democracy.
The movie focuses on John Paul’s historic visit to Poland on June 2-10, 1979, a pilgrimage that transformed Poland and which some historians say ultimately reshaped the spiritual and political landscape of the 20th century.
Drawing on interviews with a host of well-known experts and world leaders, including the leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, and John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, the film explores what transpired during those nine days over Pentecost 31 years ago.
Through his words and presence, John Paul II managed to stir his countrymen into peacefully rising up to free themselves from the shackles of Communism, leading to the establishment of the Solidarity trade union movement less than two years later. A decade later, the momentum sparked by that nine-day visit led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and, two years after that, the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“We believe there is a message for every person in the world in John Paul II’s trip to Poland,” Gingrich told the Register after a premiere of the movie at the North American College in Rome June 12. “It’s a message that says freedom is based on faith, and a message that says that no government can come between you and God.”
“Whether it’s the secularization of Europe, the dictatorship in Cuba, or our own secular problem in America, this movie has a message that’s relevant to today and that helps introduce new people to John Paul II in a way that frankly you’re not going to get in modern secular schools,” Gingrich continued. “It also introduces a more accurate history of the Cold War than you’re going to get from a lot of secular, left-wing professors.”
The idea for the 90-minute film grew out of a recent movie Gingrich made on Ronald Reagan. While making that picture, both Walesa and Havel told him that the “key moment” in the collapse of Soviet Communism was that nine-day visit. Until then, Gingrich, speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999 , said he had “no idea of the moral force of this story” which forms the basis of this largely biographical film of the late Pope.
The movie, Gingrich explained, “helps you see and understand what John Paul II was seeking to accomplish, how he witnessed in a way that was truly historic, and that had the potential to have an impact across the continent for many years to come.”
The movie’s director, Kevin Knoblock, told the Register that the picture contains clips from some 100 hours of unseen footage which the filmmakers unearthed from the Polish archives.
Also appearing in the film is Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, the current theologian to the pontifical household. Speaking to the Register after the film’s premiere, Father Giertych, who was born in Poland, said what made John Paul II’s visit so powerful was that Polish Catholics were united in their loyalty to the Pope and the magisterium.
“We were united doctrinally, pastorally and spiritually because we had communism on top of us, and so the Church had no choice,” he said. “The preaching was in fidelity with the teaching of the Church, which had always been done before, but there was a sense of having to be faithful to it; that was certainly the case in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Asked if the film is particularly relevant to the United States today, Gingrich said: “Absolutely. If you notice, you can’t pray in school; you have to tear down crosses. There are a number of parallels with what the Polish people were struggling against and what the Western elites would like to impose on our country.”
But Gingrich stressed that these concerns over secularism go beyond the current administration. “It’s a continuation of an elite movement in the United States that’s been going on for at least 50 years,” he said. “There’s been a real effort to create an irreligious and potentially anti-religious American civil society.”
Asked if he felt faith is an intrinsic part of democracy, he replied: “I believe, and all the Founding Fathers believed — as I wrote in my book Rediscovering God in America, which outlines this — and as John Paul II believed, that in the absence of absolute values, in the absence of the belief that your liberty comes from God, democracy becomes very fragile and weak.”
This is Gingrich’s fifth movie made in conjunction with the conservative organization Citizens United. His next project is a movie on that third key Western figure after John Paul II and Ronald Reagan who was central to the downfall of Communism: Margaret Thatcher.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
More information on Nine Days That Changed the World can be found at www.ninedaysthatchangedtheworld.com.