When Mikhail Gorbachev Encountered John Paul II — and St. Francis

COMMENTARY: Did the former leader of the Soviet Union feel the tug of the Holy Spirit after the fall of communist empire?

Pope John Paul II and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pose for photographers following their historical audience at the Vatican on December 1, 1989.
Pope John Paul II and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pose for photographers following their historical audience at the Vatican on December 1, 1989. (photo: Derrick Ceyrac / AFP/Getty)

It was Dec. 1, 1989. The place: the Vatican. The individual of interest was very nervous. He had never met a pope before. In fact, no Soviet leader had ever met a pope. The pope was John Paul II. The Soviet leader was Mikhail Gorbachev.

The New York Times previewed the moment in its Nov. 26 edition: “For the first time ever, the leader of atheistic Soviet Communism meets the Vicar of Christ.”

Typically, the Pontiff greeted visitors at the door of his library on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace. This time, as a token of esteem for his special guest, and perhaps to put him at ease, he greeted the nervous-looking Soviet general secretary outside the Throne Room. Observers thought that Gorbachev looked overwhelmed, in awe amid the majesty of the moment. Years later he would describe it as a “beautiful atmosphere.” 

The two men walked to the library, taking opposite sides of a wooden desk. It was a roughly 70-minute conversation, the first five minutes of which they were alone and spoke in Russian. After that, the interpreters entered, with the Pope alternating between Polish and Italian, while Gorbachev continued in Russian.

What the two said was publicly released 20 years later by the Russian government. The transcript runs more than 3,600 words in length. It begins with Gorbachev gratefully expressing appreciation for this “meeting of two Slavic people,” and thanking the Pope for the invitation and his “peace-making efforts,” to which the Pole humbly replied, “We are trying.” 

The two men talked about (in the Pope’s words) “fundamental human rights” and the “freedom of conscience, from which stems religious freedom.” John Paul II used the word “conscience” repeatedly. He also affirmed: “A person becomes a believer through free choice. It is impossible to make someone believe.” 

In all, the conversation went very well, certainly respectfully and deferentially, even as Gorbachev did most of the talking and embarrassingly veered off into some freshman philosophizing about morality that was, frankly, relativistic pabulum. The Pope charitably let him ramble on.

Maybe the most significant exchange in the conversation related to something that regrettably never happened: “I hope that after this meeting our relations will gain new momentum and I assume that at some point in the future you could visit the USSR,” offered Gorbachev. 

Now that was a mighty step. And John Paul II did not miss a beat, stating appreciatively and diplomatically: “If this were allowed, I would be very glad to.” Gorbachev reciprocated: “We should consider the date for such a trip calmly and without rushing. … We should pick a time … when the visit would do the most good.” The Pope agreed, saying only, “Very well.”

This was a major offer by the general secretary. No pope had ever set foot in Moscow. But note John Paul II’s carefully stated response: “If this were allowed, I would be very glad to.” Who needed to allow it? In the Pope’s eye, approval needed to come not only from the Kremlin but from the Russian Orthodox Church. Sadly, the latter would turn out to be the obstacle. It often has been. The Russian Orthodox Church became more an enemy of a papal visit than the Kremlin communist leadership.

And thus, John Paul II never visited Moscow.

It was, overall, a very good dialogue. In fact, until that moment, there had been no dialogue at all between the Vatican and the Kremlin. History had been made.

Upon leaving the library, the two men connected with Raisa Gorbachev, Mikhail’s hardcore atheist, Marxist-Leninist wife. A more relaxed Gorbachev, calmed down from the initial overwhelming feeling he had, said to his wife with a grin: “Raisa, I introduce you to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, who is the highest moral authority on Earth, besides being a fellow Slav like us.” For his part, Karol Wojtyla affably replied: “Yes, I’m the first Slav Pope,” adding, “I’m sure that Providence paved the way for this meeting.”

As a result of the meeting, diplomatic relations were restored between the Soviet Union and the Holy See the following year. In post-Cold War memoirs published in 1995, Gorbachev called it “an extraordinary event,” one prompted, he said, “at the personal invitation of Pope John Paul II.”

As noted by biographer George Weigel, John Paul II described Gorbachev to colleagues and friends as a “providential man” — that is, an instrument of a Providence that Gorbachev himself struggled to understand. John Paul II viewed their coming together at the Vatican in December 1989 as the will of God.

Fast forward nearly two decades.

It was mid-March 2008. The place: Assisi, Italy. The subject was on his knees, a searching pilgrim — and by now a former Soviet general secretary — in apparent silent prayer at the tomb of St. Francis.

“I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity,” Mikhail Gorbachev told a British reporter astonished to see him there. “It was through St. Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb.”

“The Church?” Which “Church?” The upper case “Church” was the designation used by the London Telegraph reporter who described the extraordinary event. And what did it mean for Gorbachev to say that it was through St. Francis that he had “arrived” at the Church? Had Mikhail Gorbachev joined the Roman Catholic Church? Had he joined the Russian Orthodox Church? Had he joined Christendom generally? Or maybe he was merely referring to this particular church, this building?

The article did not elaborate, though it underscored Gorbachev’s thirst for more that day. After praying before the bones of St. Francis, Gorbachev toured the wider basilica under escort by Franciscan friars. He asked the monks for theological books to help him better understand the Poverello. “His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life,” Gorbachev explained. “St. Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, the other Christ.”

The fascinating appearance by Mikhail Gorbachev at St. Francis’ tomb was greeted by the media as a powerful indication that the former Kremlin head — secretly baptized as an infant by his mother Maria — had found God, the Christian God, the Christ. “Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian,” proclaimed the blockbuster headline in the March 19, 2008 London Telegraph.

I was among the readers around the world struck by the article, especially given that I had written at length about Gorbachev and his enigmatic faith in my 2004 book God and Ronald Reagan. I, like Reagan, and like Pope John Paul II, was intrigued by the possibility that this Soviet leader in the 1980s might be (as Reagan put it) a “closet Christian.”

And yet, just as quickly, Gorbachev tossed cold water on the whole thing. Just days later, a March 24 article ran in the Christian Post titled, “Gorbachev Dispels ‘Closet Christian’ Rumors; Says He is Atheist.” Gorbachev stated gruffly: “Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies — I can’t use any other word — about my secret Catholicism, citing my visit to the Sacro Convento friary, where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi lie. To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist.”

But was he really? This was awfully odd behavior for an atheist.

A year later, in a March 2009 speech at no less than Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater, a student walked to the podium during the Q&A and publicly asked Gorbachev about his faith, especially in relation to Reagan’s faith and how they worked together for peace. Gorbachev characteristically dodged the question (watch here).

One person who took special notice of the evolving Gorbachev faith theatrics was Bill Clark, who had been very close to Ronald Reagan and to me. I was Clark’s biographer. Clark had served Governor Reagan as chief of staff in the 1960s and President Reagan as national security adviser in the 1980s. No figure was more crucial to Reagan in the strategy to take down what Reagan and Clark both judged an “Evil Empire.”

A very devout Catholic, Clark and I discussed the intriguing event at the crypt at Assisi, undeterred by Gorbachev’s cryptic denials. His statements at the tomb were too strong to dismiss. I emailed Clark an exclusive I had written for Christianity Today on Gorbachev’s visit to the tomb, which Clark studied carefully.

The Gorbachev connection to Francis was especially poignant because of Clark’s longtime connection to both the former Soviet leader and the saint. Clark had built a chapel outside Paso Robles, California, adorned at the entrance by a ceramic-tile plaque inscribed with Francis’ “Peace Prayer.” Clark and Reagan prayed that prayer together when riding horses at Reagan’s ranch.

What happened next is a long story, but I can now share what Clark wanted me to keep private while Gorbachev was alive, namely: Clark began a Christian outreach to Gorbachev. As Reagan’s most important adviser in attempting to win the Cold War and peacefully defeat Soviet communism, Clark now, more than 20 years later, felt an added mission to help bring God not only to the former USSR but its former leader. Clark saw Gorbachev’s connection to St. Francis as a major opening. He even got to Gorbachev a rare Russian collection of Francis writings.

Gorbachev reciprocated, saying that he would like to meet with Clark. Unfortunately, given their vast geographic distances, and Clark’s declining health, the meeting never happened. Clark was halted by Parkinson’s disease, prompting him to humbly observe, “The Good Lord gave Parkinson’s to saints like John Paul II and my father. Now he has gotten around to giving it to sinners like me.”

Bill Clark’s meeting with Gorbachev was not to be — not part of what Clark called “the DP,” i.e., the Divine Plan. To our knowledge, Gorbachev never converted to Christianity, let alone Catholicism. Well, at least that we knew of.

Bill Clark died in August 2013. Mikhail Gorbachev lived nine more years, until Aug. 30, 2022. Gorbachev had plenty of time to arrange for his ultimate meeting with his Maker. Plenty of time, too, for some intercession from saints like Francis and John Paul II.

Let us hope that his soul was ready.