As we marked Ronald Reagan's passing June 5, many questions were asked about both the man and his faith.
A devout Christian, Reagan was raised in the Disciples of Christ Church. Yet the Protestant president was open to other faiths, especially Catholicism.
Reagan's embrace of Catholics began at home with his father, Jack Reagan. Jack was an apathetic Catholic who left the religious rearing of his two children to his wife, Nelle, a deeply Christian woman and a Protestant.
Ironically, whereas Reagan was raised in a household marked by a distinct lack of Catholicism, later, as president, he was surrounded by serious Catholics, allies in his efforts to change the world. Specifically, Reagan's assault on atheistic Soviet communism was aided by a number of key Catholics, such as CIA director William Casey, speechwriter Tony Dolan, Secretary of State Al Haig, Ambassador Vernon Walters and others. Two men in particular were pivotal: Reagan's first two national security advisers, Richard Allen and William Clark.
Four years before Reagan's presidency began, he met with Allen in Los Angeles. Allen never forgot what Reagan told him that January afternoon in 1977: “Dick, my idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose. What do you think of that?” That was the plan.
Reagan's most crucial adviser was the man who would replace Allen: William Clark. “Judge Clark,” as he is known, implemented the Reagan administration's core policy directives crucial to confronting the Soviet empire. Clark is so devout in his faith that he has built a beautiful chapel on his property in Paso Robles, Calif., which he has opened to the community. This dedicated Catholic was Reagan's closest spiritual partner. The two men frequently prayed together.
However, Reagan's Cold War crusade was influenced by more than advisers and strategies. Reagan felt a sense of divine calling in his attack on Soviet communism. And that sense was reinforced in three meetings he had with prominent Catholics.
On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan almost died at the hands of a bullet fired by John Hinckley Jr. The president was sure that God had spared him for a larger purpose. His feeling was affirmed on April 17, Good Friday, by New York's Cardinal Terence Cooke.
“The hand of God was upon you,” Cardinal Cooke told Reagan. Reagan grew very serious. “I know,” he replied, before confiding to the cardinal: “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for him.”
Reagan's sense was reaffirmed in June 1981. He and Nancy Reagan and a few selected guests had a private meal with Mother Teresa. The servant to Calcutta's poor made an immediate impact upon the host.
“Mr. President Reagan, do you know that we stayed up for two straight nights praying for you after you were shot?” she stated, pointing to a younger sister who was joining them. “We prayed very hard for you to live.” Reagan thanked her. During the meal, she looked at Reagan and said pointedly: “You have suffered the passion of the cross and have received grace. There is a purpose to this. This has happened to you at this time because your country and the world need you.” Nancy Reagan dissolved into tears. Her husband was almost speechless.
A year later, in June 1982, Reagan had an even more powerful encounter — with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The Polish Pope rightly perceived in Reagan a Protestant who was friendly to Catholicism and who counted many Catholics among his intimates. Of course, John Paul was overjoyed when Reagan became the first president to extend diplomatic recognition to the Vatican — a move long resisted by previous presidents. Both men shared a hatred of communism.
The two talked alone in the Vatican Library. They discussed the assassination attempts against them the previous year — only six weeks apart. Reagan said to the Holy Father: “Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened.”
Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, in their biography of the Pope, dramatically conclude: “For the Pope, Reagan had been … an instrument in the hands of God.” The feeling was mutual. According to a number of sources, the two men confided in one another that they believed God had spared their lives for a special mission, which they came to see as the defeat of godless communism in the Soviet bloc.
Following the meeting, the two men and their teams agreed to aid the Solidarity movement in Poland, aiming to keep it alive as the potential wedge that could split the Soviet Union's empire in Eastern Europe. Each man believed Solidarity could be the splinter to crack the Iron Curtain and hasten the downfall of the communist bloc. They were right. And the rest is history.
Again, how ironic that this man who was raised by an apathetic Catholic father would be surrounded by the most devout Catholics throughout his presidency, both inside and outside the White House. And it was those Catholics who were crucial to Reagan's life mission and enduring legacy: victory in the Cold War.
Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan.
This article is used by permission from CatholicExchange.com.