Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II


Today is my 58th birthday.  I have always been pleased to share my birthday with one of the greatest of our presidents:   Ronald Wilson Reagan.  One of the fascinating aspects of his Presidency was the alliance established between him, Pope John Paul II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to help bring about the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe.  Carl Bernstein chronicled what he called The Holy Alliance which began with a meeting between Reagan and the Pope in the Vatican Library on June 7, 1982, the first meeting of the two men:

According to aides who shared their leaders’ view of the world, Reagan and John Paul II refused to accept a fundamental political fact of their lifetimes: the division of Europe as mandated at Yalta and the communist dominance of Eastern Europe. A free, noncommunist Poland, they were convinced, would be a dagger to the heart of the Soviet empire; and if Poland became democratic, other East European states would follow.

“We both felt that a great mistake had been made at Yalta and something should be done,” Reagan says today. “Solidarity was the very weapon for bringing this about, because it was an organization of the laborers of Poland.” Nothing quite like Solidarity had ever existed in Eastern Europe, Reagan notes, adding that the workers’ union “was contrary to anything the Soviets would want or the communists ((in Poland)) would want.”

According to Solidarity leaders, Walesa and his lieutenants were aware that both Reagan and John Paul II were committed to Solidarity’s survival, but they could only guess at the extent of the collaboration. “Officially I didn’t know the church was working with the U.S.,” says Wojciech Adamiecki, the organizer and editor of underground Solidarity newspapers and now a counselor at the Polish embassy in Washington. “We were told the Pope had warned the Soviets that if they entered Poland he would fly to Poland and stay with the Polish people. The church was of primary assistance. It was half open, half secret. Open as far as humanitarian aid — food, money, medicine, doctors’ consultations held in churches, for instance — and secret as far as supporting political activities: distributing printing machines of all kinds, giving us a place for underground meetings, organizing special demonstrations.”

At their first meeting, Reagan and John Paul II discussed something else they had in common: both had survived assassination attempts only six weeks apart in 1981, and both believed God had saved them for a special mission. “A close friend of Ronald Reagan’s told me the President said, ‘Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened,’ ” says Pio Cardinal Laghi, the former apostolic delegate to Washington. According to National Security Adviser Clark, the Pope and Reagan referred to the ) “miraculous” fact that they had survived. Clark said the men shared “a unity of spiritual view and a unity of vision on the Soviet empire: that right or correctness would ultimately prevail in the divine plan.”

At first blush Reagan and Pope John Paul II had little in common, but that was deceptive.  Both had acting backgrounds and well understood the importance of how a message was conveyed as well as the substance of the message.  Both were outdoorsmen.  Both were men who were strangers to the seats of power of the institutions they led, who found themselves called to lead at moments of crisis, after the institutions they headed had gone through rocky times.  Both were simultaneously traditionalists of those institutions and yet also reformers.  Both had warm and winning personalities, but neither allowed more than a select handful of people to get emotionally close to them.  Both were exceptionally strong-willed men, not to be trifled with, yet day to day management of their institutions was not their strong point.  Both shared the attribute of all great statesmen:  the ability to see beyond the travails of their time to better days, and that is how both of them viewed the seemingly intractable problem of Communism, which they understand, in contrast to almost all of their contemporaries, as a problem to be solved and not a permanent feature on the world stage.  A strong President and a strong Pope, a fortunate combination for the World at that time.

Here is the text of President Reagan’s public remarks at the June 7, 1982 meeting:

Your Holiness, Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Members of the Clergy, Ladies and Gentlemen.

On behalf of myself, and for all Americans, I want to express profound appreciation to you, Your Holiness, and to all of those from the Holy See who made it possible for us to meet in Vatican City.

This is truly is a city of peace, love and charity where the highest arid the humblest among us seek to follow in the footsteps of the Fisherman.

As you know, Your Holiness, this is my first visit to Europe as President. I would like to think of it as a pilgrimage for peace: a journey aimed at strengthening the forces for peace in the free West while offering new opportunities for realistic negotiations with those who may not share the values of freedom and the spirit which we cherish.

This is no easy task, but I leave this audience with a renewed sense of hope and dedication. Hope, because one cannot meet a man like Your Holiness without feeling that a world that can produce such courage and vision out of adversity and oppression is capable—with God’s help—of building a better future. Dedication, because one cannot enter this citadel of faith, the fountainhead of so many of the values we in the free West hold dear, without coming away resolved to do all in one’s power to live up to them.

Certain common experiences we have shared in our different walks of life, Your Holiness, and the warm correspondence we have carried on, also gave our meeting a special meaning for me. I hope that others will follow.

Let me add that all Americans remember with great warmth your historic visit to our shores in 1979. We all hope that you will he back again with your timeless message. Ours is a nation grounded on faith: faith in man’s ability, through God-given freedom, to live in tolerance and. peace, and faith that a supreme being guides our daily striving in this world. Our national motto, “In God we trust”, reflects that faith.

Many of our earliest settlers came to America seeking a refuge where they could worship God unhindered. So our dedication to political and individual freedoms is wedded to religious freedom as well. Liberty has never meant licence to Americans. We treasure it precisely because it protects the human and spiritual values we hold most dear: the right to worship as we choose, the right to elect democratic leaders, the right to choose the type of education we want for our children, and freedom from fear, want and oppression. These are God. given freedoms, not the contrivances of man.

We also believe in helping one another through our Churches and charitable institutions or simply as one friend—one good Samaritan—to another.

The ten commandments and the golden rule are as much a part of our living heritage as the Constitution we take such pride in, and we have tried—not always successfully, but always in good conscience—to extend those same principles to our role in the world.

We know that God has blessed America with a freedom and abundance many of our less fortunate brothers and sisters around the world have been denied. Since the end of World War II we have done our best to provide assistance to them—assistance amounting to billions of dollars worth of food, medicines and materials—and we will continue to do so in the years ahead. Americans have always believed that, in the words of the scripture, “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required”.

To us, in a troubled world, the Holy See, and your pastorate represent one of the world’s greatest moral and spiritual forces. We admire your active efforts to foster peace and promote justice, freedom and compassion in a world that is still stalked by the forces of evil.

As a people and as a government, we seek to pursue the same goals of peace, freedom and humanity along political and economic lines that the Church pursues in its spiritual role. So we deeply value your counsel and support and express our solidarity with you.

Your Holiness, one of the areas of our mutual concern is Latin America. We want to work closely with the Church in that area to help promote peace, social justice and reform, and to prevent the spread of repression and godless tyranny. We also share your concern in seeking peace and justice in troubled areas of the Middle East such as Lebanon.

Another special area of mutual concern is the martyred nation of Poland, your own homeland. Through centuries of adversity, Poland has been a brave bastion of faith and freedom—in the hearts of her courageous people if not in those who rule her.

We seek a process of reconciliation. and reform that will lead to a new dawn of hope for the people of Poland and we will continue to call for an end to martial law, for the freeing of all political. prisoners, and a resumed dialogue among the Polish Government, the Church, and the Solidarity movement which speaks for the vast majority of Poles.

While denying financial assistance to the oppressive Polish regime, America will continue to provide the Polish people with as much food and commodity support as possible through Church and private organizations.

Today, Your Holiness, marks the beginning of the U.N. special session on disarmament. We pledge to do everything possible in these discussions—as in our individual initiatives for peace and arms reductions—to help bring a real, lasting peace throughout the world. To us, this is nothing less than it sacred trust.

Dante has written that “the infinite goodness has such wide arms that it takes whatever turns to it”. We ask your prayers, Holy Father, that God will guide us in our efforts for peace—on this journey and in the years ahead—and that the wide arms of faith and forgiveness can someday embrace a world at peace, with justice and compassion for all mankind.

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