Providential Partnership of Pope and President

BOOK PICK: Latest Paul Kengor book


John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century

By Paul Kengor

ISI Books, 2017

637 pages, $29.95 (hardcover)

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“The historian John Lukacs argued that the 20th century ended, symbolically, in 1989, when communism, the scourge that defined the century, collapsed.  One might say, however, that the 20th century ended not early, but late, with the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005, on the heels of the death of Ronald Reagan in June 2004. And if the century terminated in 2005, I would argue that it began in 1917. That was the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. John Paul II would have pointed to that other important set of events in 1917: the reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Fatima ...”

Professor and frequent Register contributor Paul Kengor offers an interpretation of the 20th century, refracted through the lens of Fatima that involves Pope John Paul II, Reagan and Russia.

While the Pope and Reagan had many differences, Kengor argues they had a lot in common, too. “Ultimately, the bond they formed did not hinge on similarities or even their mutual affection. Philosophically, the two leaders shared an understanding of the reinforcing relationship of faith and freedom, the importance of ordered liberty, and the evil of atheistic, totalitarian communism.” Common experience also bound them together: Both men, less than two months apart, almost died by assassins’ bullets. John Paul attributed his survival to the intervention of the Blessed Mother; Kengor maintains that Reagan also understood that God spared his life for a purpose. Kengor also believes both men shared a Providential sense of their solidarity in suffering and that Reagan came to know of Fatima (at least through Frank Shakespeare, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See 1986-1989) and had a personal, mystical faith with a Marian dimension. Kengor also argues both men believed Soviet military intelligence was behind the attempted papal killing (to which he devotes the book’s longest chapter).

Both Kengor and his Catholic reader face some real challenges.

He insists “this book is a work of historical investigation, not a religious apologetic.” It is, but even on a purely historical level, he has a tough slog: As he repeatedly admits, many U.S. government and Vatican sources remain classified. On top of that, there is the  intersection of the natural and supernatural.

Fatima and the Bolshevik Revolution both happened in 1917; Communist totalitarianism and religious persecution have gone in tandem; John Paul and Reagan were actively anti-communist throughout their careers, which brought them by unconventional routes to the pinnacles of power at roughly the same time; both saw Poland as the communist world’s Achilles heel; and both men abandoned détente/Ostpolitik accommodations in favor of subjecting communism to a full stress test in the name of human freedom.

How many of Kengor’s connections can be proven using available documentation is limited, but that doesn’t limit speculation about them.

The parallels are fascinating, the coincidences striking.

John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.