Speaking for a Catholic Civilization
BY Tim Drake
September 20-26, 2009 Issue | Posted 9/11/09 at 4:02 PM
Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, was received into the Catholic Church on March 30 at St. Joseph’s Church in Washington.
It was his experience of being with Pope Benedict XVI in Washington last spring that led to his final decision to become Catholic.
Gingrich founded the nonpartisan think tank American Solutions. He and his wife, Callista Gingrich, have produced public-policy documentaries. Their new film, Rediscovering God in America, Part II, will be released this month.
Gingrich spoke with the Register’s senior writer, Tim Drake, from his office in Washington.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Harrisburg, Pa., and lived in central Pennsylvania until I was 10 years old. My dad was in the Army and had been in Korea. I had a classic Army brat background. We spent time in Kansas, France and Germany. In March 1960, we arrived at Fort Benning, and I became a Georgian.
I have four younger sisters. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, but did work full time after my father had a car accident.
Did you have a faith background growing up?
My maternal grandmother was a devout Missouri Synod Lutheran and believed in good and evil. She taught me my most basic lessons when I was young about God and Satan. My mother was Lutheran also, and she loved to sing in the choir. I have fond memories of Handel’s “Messiah.”
When we moved around because of the military, we were whatever our chaplain tended to be. At one time, I was a Presbyterian acolyte. In my 20s, while in graduate school at Tulane, I became Baptist. I attended St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. They had an eloquent preacher.
I’ve always thought of myself as a person who believed deeply in God and the power of prayer, and that you had to be saved through faith because you were inadequate yourself.
Do you have a favorite childhood church memory?
I think it was probably singing Christmas carols, the candlelight, and the sense that God loved you. I grew up in a time when you prayed every night. As a very young child, I said my nightly prayers. It was the sort of world I grew up in. God was a fact of life.
In many ways, it seems people today live as if God no longer is a fact of life.
I think our country is in a great struggle, and it’s something that Paul wrote about frequently. Paul wrote about a world where there was paganism. That’s where we are. A number of people with great social prestige think that paganism is a reasonable way of life. They like to think that they’re unique, but they’re not.
In the end, I don’t believe America as we’ve known it can be understood or survive without realizing that our fundamental rights come from our Creator. You cannot explain this country if you erase God from the picture.
I became deeply convicted when the 9th Circuit Court said that it was unconstitutional for the school district to lead students in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Faced with the choice between a pagan world or a Christian one, I had zero doubt about what kind of world I wanted my grandchildren to grow up in.
How does a Baptist come to be Catholic?
It was a pretty long progression. My Ph.D. is in European history. You can’t engage in understanding Europe and America without trying to understand the Bible, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. From that standpoint, you inexorably have to engage the Church, and you come to realize that it’s this 2,000-year-old structure.
I’ve lived in Germany, France and Belgium. Part of my being is medieval in that I resonate with large cathedrals and the pageantry of the Church at its fullest. It didn’t occur to me for the longest time that that might have personal ramifications.
My wife, Callista, was raised in a Catholic family and has attended church every week of her life from the time she was a premature newborn. She sings in the choir at the Basilica [of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington]. I got into the habit of trying to be a good husband and would attend the noon Mass to hear her sing. It made the week go better. The basilica is the largest Catholic church in America. It’s a beautiful church and has a perfect music program.
Year by year, I was drawn in by the work of rectors Msgr. Michael Bransfield and Msgr. Walter Rossi. Five years ago, we went to Europe with the choir. I had no responsibilities other than being a spouse. Msgr. Rossi and I got into conversations about the crisis of our civilization. The more I began to think about how we are parallel to Paul’s world, the more I thought about the Church.
What role did your wife play?
For nine years, I watched Callista take Communion and could see the power of the Eucharist in her life.
Callista’s view had always been that she was glad that I came to church with her. She has a deep need to be at Mass every week and sing at the basilica. That’s part of her service. She would occasionally say to me that “the Church is available.” That’s as hard as she would push. She didn’t try to twist my arm. When I was received into the Church, she was beyond delighted.
I recall seeing you at the basilica during Pope Benedict XVI’s U.S. visit in April 2008. Did his visit have an impact on your decision to join the Church?
I had met Pope John Paul II twice, both as a junior member of Congress and as speaker. Those were official meetings. I watched Pope Benedict XVI’s week in the U.S.; Callista sang for him at the basilica. I thought his choice of “Christ Our Hope” [as the theme of his pastoral visit] was exactly right. He expressed in his eyes such joy that night that he was at the basilica. That evening I told Msgr. Rossi, “I want you to know that I’m going to convert. My experience today convinces me that my natural home is in the Church.”
From that background, I began studying with him and reading books. I had been influenced by George Weigel’s Final Revolution. All of that fit both my personal sense of reality that there is a dual world — the spiritual world that transcends and is larger than the physical world — and also my personal sense of finding a place where I could rest.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
Much, much earlier, in order to be married in the Church, I went through the annulment process. Through that I experienced the Church judicial structure and how it worked.
You spoke about the intellectual journey to the Church. Was there an accompanying emotional journey?
The biggest part was to fully accept transubstantiation and realize that when the priest says, “The body of Christ” that you’re participating in the re-presenting of the Last Supper. That, to me, has become amazing emotionally: to walk down front and participate in the Eucharist in a way I never would have believed possible until I participated. I could see how it recentered Callista’s life every week. It’s not a brain thing; it’s a being thing.
Another real surprise to me was the degree to which the Church is a community. I’ve been surprised by the number of converts. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have walked up to me and said, “Welcome home.” To realize that I’m part of a body of a billion people has been the biggest surprise.
We just got back from China and participated in Mass there. Even when the Mass is in Chinese, you still feel you’re part of the universal Church, and participating in the Eucharist and being enriched by the body of Christ is remarkable.
Do you have a favorite memory from your journey into the Church?
One great emotional moment for me at the basilica was just before Easter, when they receive everyone who is going to join the Church. There were 4,000 people at Mass. I went and stood next to Msgr. Rossi and Archbishop Wuerl and saw this sea of humanity of which I was a tiny part. It was a powerful, integrating moment.
What remains foremost in mind from the day I came into the Church is the sense of joy and receptivity.
What impact, if any, has your Catholic faith had on your politics?
I find myself, in a more structured way, praying and contemplating, and I find myself being drawn into reading a variety of things. The Church, if you’re willing to take it seriously, has an entire structure of authoritative ways of allowing you to think about God that are remarkable and have developed over 2,000 years. All of that is available to you if you want to avail yourself of it. I am increasingly fascinated with that.
Do you see the Church as offering solutions to the social and political problems facing our country?
Sure, of course. The challenge we all have is that the answers to life aren’t always that complicated; they’re just hard. People don’t necessarily want to listen to them because they limit people’s ability to choose their own path. That began with the apple in the Garden of Eden.
What has the Church provided for you personally that may have been missing before?
It provides a refuge and community of faith and a sense of fellowship that I absolutely cherish. My affection for Msgr. Rossi and the way he has been my guide and support has changed my life.
Today, I’m the most relaxed as a person than I’ve ever been in my life. When you feel that you’re surrounded by people who genuinely care about you, it allows you to operate in a completely different tone. I feel very fortunate.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
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