When Newt Gingrich was received into the Church last March, the reactions were predictable. The former Speaker of the House was simultaneously welcomed, jeered, and cynically accused of positioning himself to run for president in 2012.
When I spoke to him last Friday in his Washington, D.C., office, Gingrich was humble and soft-spoken about his new faith. He was also excited about his forthcoming documentary, Nine Days That Changed the World, recounting Pope John Paul II’s first trip home to Poland in June 1979 after being elected to the see of St. Peter. Gingrich’s wife, Callista, a cradle Catholic, is a co-producer of the film.
The Gingriches first got the idea for the film five years ago on a trip to Rome, where Callista, as part of the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, was making a recording at the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. Conversations during the trip with Msgr. Walter Rossi, pastor of the basilica in D.C., combined with his recent reading of George Weigel’s Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, provoked thoughts about the parallels between Communist-ruled Poland and the growing secularism of the United States.
Gingrich hopes his film will be an “evangelical vehicle” to combat the “secularist moment” in our culture. Telling the story of how John Paul’s visit led Poland to overthrow Communism, Gingrich said the film will contain a clear message: “Our true humanness is found only in a relationship with God.” Added Gingrich, “I hope people will see the film and think about their relationship to Christ and the importance of courage.” The projected release date is November 9, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There is another Polish connection in the Gingrich family: Callista’s grandmother, on her father’s side, was from Krakow. Gingrich told me that his wife never pushed her faith on him, but by her example “it was clear it meant a great deal to her.” He went to Mass with her at the basilica and wherever they traveled — including Hawaii, where they were treated to a hula dance. “We’ve been able to see the extraordinary range of the Church,” he told me.
Gingrich explained that his wife “created an environment where I could gradually think and evolve on the issue of faith.” Reading and conversations with various friends, primarily Monsignor Rossi, fed that process until the moment of decision arrived.
The moment came when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April 2008. Gingrich was seated in the basilica, where his wife’s choir was to sing vespers for the Holy Father, when he was suddenly able to see the pope up close. He recalled, “It was clear he [the pope] was having the time of his life, and the joy in his eyes belied his reputation as an austere German. As he walked past me, I knew I wanted to become a Catholic.”
“I knew that I belonged here,” he went on. “No — as a Catholic, I should put it: Here is where I belong.” As Gingrich parsed his sentence, his eyes teared up, and he excused himself for getting emotional. He changed the subject, but the emotion remained in his voice as he talked about Benedict’s visit to New York City.
“It was extraordinary,” he told me; “we were so blessed.” As he and Callista tried to get close to the pope’s entourage driving up Fifth Avenue, they ended up on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and were invited to stand at the back for the Mass. Then they were told that the pope would pass by their spot near the rope and bless a young boy in the wheelchair sitting next to them. They were overwhelmed when “Benedict XVI blessed the boy directly in front of us!”
Gingrich comes from a Pennsylvania Lutheran background, though he became Southern Baptist while in graduate school. From his mother’s mother, he told me, he received a pronounced sense of “good versus evil in the world.” He regards it as something of a mystery that, when his father went to Gettysburg College, “he had a copy of St. Augustine.”
Gingrich thinks the first time he felt the tug of the Church might have been when he visited Notre Dame in Paris at age 13, but he clearly remembers the impact of visiting St. Jacob’s Stone United Church of Christ in Glenville, Pennsylvania, where the effect of the organ “swept me away” as he heard his mother sing Handel’s Messiah.
Since Gingrich often brings up the power of great churches and sacred music, I asked him about beauty. “Beauty comes from giving up our weakness and realizing you don’t have to impose anything on the universe,” he replied. “You accept that it comes from a higher being.”
Secularism rejects and ridicules this acceptance of our creaturely status. Gingrich sees it gaining more and more of a foothold in the United States, as it already has in Europe. Further, it is antithetical to the history and culture of the United States. As Gingrich explained, “This country is heir to a Scottish and English Enlightenment that did not reject God, unlike the atheism of the French Revolution.” “In the face of the secularist threat,” Gingrich mused, “along with that militant Islam, endurance is what really matters.”
At 66, Newt Gingrich has endured the travails of a very public life to discover a new faith and new mission to reinvigorate the Christian roots of our nation and our civilization. Nine Days That Changed the World will tell the story of John Paul’s return to Poland, but its subtext will be the moment Benedict walked by with a smile on his face.
Image: © Callista Gingrich, Gingrich Productions