Traditionally, a novena is a prayer that extends over nine successive days and is often said for a specific intention or to obtain a particular grace. Seen in that light, Pope John Paul II’s nine-day pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979 was novena-like in its ability to bring forth tremendous graces for Poland, the Church and the world.
Newt Gingrich’s political aspirations aside, as a documentary filmmaker, Gingrich and his wife, Callista, have produced Nine Days That Changed the World: Pope John Paul II, a moving new DVD that ably tells a much-needed story — that of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Poland and the remarkable consequences of that pilgrimage.
Among the many highlights of the documentary are some never-before-seen photographs of Pope John Paul II and video from that historic trip.
Hosts Newt and Callista Gingrich and an impressive list of interviewees — including writer Michael Novak; former CIA director James Woolsey; James Nicholson, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican; White House correspondent Sam Donaldson; Legionary Father Thomas Williams, theology professor; Lech Walesa, Solidarity union leader and former Polish president; former Czechoslovakia President Vaclav Havel; and papal biographer George Weigel — convincingly make the case that Pope John Paul II influenced the nation of Poland, sparked a bloodless revolution of conscience, and had perhaps the greatest effect on the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
The 94-minute DVD begins with a history of Poland — a nation, says theologian Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, that “from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 1950s, every 30 years … lost its best people from deportation, being killed and being exterminated.” The video also includes a brief biography of Karol Wojtyla and the influence of Poland’s Marian Catholicism upon his formation. It speaks of his involvement in the Rhapsodic Theater, an underground theater that attempted to keep alive Polish culture and fight the enemy with words. The documentary also speaks of the death of his parents and his enrollment in the underground seminary.
Weigel notes that approximately one-fifth of the nation’s population died between 1939 and 1945. The profound suffering of the country, first at the hands of the Nazis and then at the hands of the Soviet Union, and its humiliation at the hands of evil, ultimately led Wojtyla to the priesthood.
Under the leadership of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Wojtyla eventually became the archbishop of Krakow and later a cardinal. The documentary spends a good deal of time explaining how the people in the Communist city of Nowa Huta — the city without a church — kept putting up a cross, which the Soviets would take down, and how Archbishop Wojtyla tirelessly fought the Communists in efforts to finally get a church built there.
After Wojytla’s election as pope in October 1978, the documentary suggests that the Communists feared the end of their rule. Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev urged Communist party leaders in Poland to prevent a papal pilgrimage, fearing that it was too risky. Originally intending a two-day trip to Poland in May to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the death of Polish martyr St. Stanislaus, the Communists negotiated a later date, allowing a nine-day trip in June, realizing that they could not keep a Polish pope out of Poland.
The Soviets code named the event “Summer 1979,” and in Krakow alone, there were more than 67,000 Communist police and 20,000 undercover officers in place.
The trip shaped history. During his nine days in Poland, Pope John Paul II challenged the Communist regime, advocating for the Polish people’s right to form their own culture and nation based on faith in Christ. Callista Gingrich describes the Pope’s methods as achieving “peace through faith.”
The documentary features several moving scenes.
One emotional moment captures the Pope kneeling, after his election, to embrace Polish primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.
Simply seeing the love of the Polish people, as they line Poland’s streets with flowers for the Pope’s arrival, is also moving.
Yet another scene highlights one of the pivotal events during the Polish visit: the Pope’s address at Victory Square.
There, the Holy Father told the Polish people, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the world.” In response, the people began spontaneously singing, “We want God. He is our King and Our Lord.” The Holy Father interrupted his prepared text and waited through 14 minutes of applause and singing before continuing his speech.
Father Giertych explained the importance of the moment: “[The Pope] knew how people were repressed by their fear. The people stopped being afraid, and this liberation from fear was a great psychological step toward the renewal of the entire society.”
While the state-controlled media attempted to skew television coverage of the trip so that viewers couldn’t see how many people were there, their attempts failed. Nearly everyone in the country either saw the pilgrimage on television, attended the events, or heard it on the radio. One-third of the nation saw the Pope live.
The pilgrimage marked the beginning of the end for Communist rule in Poland. By the end of the first two days, the government realized that the Pope was the de facto leader and that there were more believers than there were nonbelievers.
Outside St. Michael’s Church, the site where St. Stanislaus was martyred, the Holy Father gathered with young people, who threw a continual cascade of flowers towards him, carried small wooden crosses, and chanted “Stay with us.” His observation of the passion of the youth was the genesis for what would become the Church’s World Youth Days, which have since been attended by more than 11 million youth around the world.
As the days drew on, the crowds continued to grow, so that, by the end, approximately 2 million gathered for the Pope’s final address. There, he told them, as he had from his pontificate’s start, “Be not afraid.”
End of Communism
Within 14 months, the Solidarity union movement was born, under the leadership of Lech Walesa. The documentary highlights the relationship between the Pope and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan gave a series of speeches in Europe in the summer of 1987.
Two years after Reagan’s European trip, the Berlin Wall fell, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the election of the first non-Communist government in Poland — all within 10 years of the Pope’s pilgrimage.
The film briefly touches upon the idea that the papal assassination attempt likely may have been orchestrated by the Soviet Union.
The documentary offers a view of modern history not often found in history textbooks. As a result, it is a valuable addition to the historical record and a fitting legacy of Pope John Paul II’s important role in history.
“He defended the cross,” said Msgr. Jaroslaw Cielecki, director of Vatican News Service. “He knew that to defend the cross was to defend man, to defend values, to defend his future life.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.