This weekend, Pope Francis marks the 100th anniversary of events in Fatima, Portugal, important to the life of Pope John Paul II and even — as Paul Kengor argues in a new book — President Ronald Reagan. In A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, Kengor presents both the pope and the president as understanding Divine Providence’s role in their lives and in history. We talk a bit about the bonds between these men and the Marian events in Fatima, which John Paul II believed were intimately connected to the sparing of his life, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do you begin your book with a quote from John Paul II and this one from Ronald Reagan: “There is purpose and worth to each and every life”?
I initially began the manuscript only with the quote from John Paul II, which was this one: “Every human being [is] unique and unrepeatable.” He said that on Christmas Day in 1978, the first Christmas homily of his 27-year pontificate. It wasn’t the only time he said it. I’ve always loved that statement.
I was planning to open the book with that epigraph alone. But one day in the summer of 2015, when I walked out of the Reagan Library after spending the day in the research room — working on this book — I went past the tomb of Ronald Reagan. I stopped to pay my respects and gather my thoughts. There, etched on the tomb, were those words from Reagan. I thought to myself, “That’s just like John Paul II — the epitaph in my book on John Paul II and Reagan.” I took a picture with my phone, got in the car, opened my laptop and inserted it directly under the John Paul II epitaph in my manuscript.
I should add here, Kathryn, that for both men this shared appreciation began in the womb. John Paul II spoke of the “inherent dignity” of every human being, which he believed was precious from the moment each human being began developing in the womb. As he put it in his October 1979 speech to the United Nations, “Concern for the child, even before birth, from the first moment of conception and then throughout the years of infancy and youth, is the primary and fundamental test of the relationship of one human being to another.”
Ronald Reagan agreed. Reagan believed that the right to life is the first and most fundamental of all human freedoms. He affirmed “the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning.” That statement is essentially identical to John Paul II’s affirmation in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which referred to “the right to life” as “the first of the fundamental rights.”
That’s merely one of so many significant similarities that struck me as I’ve observed these two men over the years. The similarities enabled them to easily and naturally form a kinship and a bond, whether they were concerned for the unborn child in the womb or the suffering dissident in the Soviet gulag. They wanted each such person to have freedom, to have life, and to have it abundantly.
Lopez: What is the untold story of the book exactly?
Kengor: The untold story is that special, unique, and unrepeatable relationship and bond between the two men and — more so — their shared revulsion for the evil of atheistic Soviet Communism infecting the world.
As a result of that revulsion, these two men were shot only six weeks apart, one on March 30, 1981 — Reagan, just outside the Washington Hilton, by John Hinckley — and one on May 13, 1981 — John Paul II, just outside the Vatican, by Mehmet Ali Agca. Both could’ve easily bled to death. Instead, they were saved for what they believed was a historic and even divine purpose.
This pope and this president would meet to discuss that joint purpose on June 7, 1982, at the Vatican. They talked alone for about an hour in the Vatican Library. Both referred to the “miraculous” fact that they had survived. They believed their lives had been spared for a special purpose, which they translated into a joint effort to take down atheistic Soviet Communism. And their dagger to make that happen would be Poland — which they believed could pierce and ultimately split the Soviet empire.
Cardinal Pio Laghi, the pope’s apostolic nuncio to Washington, later said: “Nobody believed the collapse of Communism would happen this fast or on this timetable. But in their first meeting, the Holy Father and the president committed themselves and the institutions of the Church and America to such a goal. And from that day, the focus was to bring it about in Poland.”
Reagan told the Polish pope: “Hope remains in Poland. We, working together, can keep it alive.” Poland would be, as Bill Clark, who was with Reagan at the Vatican for that visit, put it, “the linchpin in the dissolution of the Soviet empire.”
The untold story is how they went about hastening that dissolution, this Protestant president and this leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Lopez: What did Reagan say in Portugal about Fatima, and why was it important?
Kengor: Here’s the passage, which is quite powerful:
Human beings are not just another part of the material universe, not just mere bundles of atoms. We believe in another dimension—a spiritual side to man. We find a transcendent source for our claims to human freedom, our suggestion that inalienable rights come from one greater than ourselves.
No one has done more to remind the world of the truth of human dignity, as well as the truth that peace and justice begins with each of us, than the special man who came to Portugal a few years ago after a terrible attempt on his life. He came here to Fatima, the site of your great religious shrine, to fulfill his special devotion to Mary, to plead for forgiveness and compassion among men, to pray for peace and the recognition of human dignity throughout the world.
When I met Pope John Paul II a year ago in Alaska, I thanked him for his life and his apostolate. And I dared to suggest to him the example of men like himself and in the prayers of simple people everywhere, simple people like the children of Fatima, there resides more power than in all the great armies and statesmen of the world.
Think about that. Reagan said that in the prayers of “simple people like the children of Fatima” there resided “more power” than in all of the world’s great statesmen and great armies. If that doesn’t affirm his special thinking about Fatima, and certainly his knowledge of what allegedly happened there, then I don’t know what does.
Lopez: Is there some lesson we can draw from the relationship between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan about secular leaders and religious leaders, as well as what that mutual dialogue and counsel should and could look like?
Kengor: Well, there’s definitely a lesson in terms of what two leaders can accomplish together when they are of one mind and one purpose, and when they share the unique character traits and the kinship that these two men possessed and harnessed. But the key, of course, is finding two men today of such shared mission and characteristics. And frankly, I don’t see two such men of equal influence on the world stage.
And I don’t see any such commonality whatsoever between the man in the White House today and the man in the Vatican today, regardless of their respective strengths and weaknesses. Do those two men today even have a shared understanding of what currently serves as the great international threat or global menace, or how to defeat it? I don’t think they do. What would President Trump and Pope Francis list as the great threats today? Immigration, radical Islam, “climate change,” economic inequality, the dictatorship of relativism? Would their top priorities intersect anywhere?
Sure, Donald Trump and Pope Francis might well surprise people in their ability to get along when they meet later this month. I actually think that’s possible. But beyond that, I don’t perceive a grand historical-spiritual shared vision and mission between these two occupants of the presidency and the chair of St. Peter as we saw in Ronald Reagan and John Paul II.
And really, Kathryn, I think that strikes at why the relationship between Reagan and John Paul II was so truly extraordinary and so special, unique, worthy, purposeful, and unrepeatable. I didn’t choose the word “extraordinary” in the subtitle of this book merely for hype. I chose it because it reflects the distinctive reality. These two men and what they did was genuinely special. We will not see the likes of the two of them — together — on the world stage again.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.