One Night Only: How a Pope and a President Brought Down Communism
Writing about the Vatican and world politics nowadays is rarely uplifting. In 2019, a story would likely cover Pope Francis’ reported statement: “It is the Communists who think like Christians.” Or it might highlight the Vatican’s de facto alliance with Communist China against the West. Maybe Francis’ command: “We must obey international institutions. That is why the United Nations were created.”
It wasn’t always so. When I came of age in the 80s, the contrast between Marxist materialism and Christian freedom was clear. It was embodied in two great men, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. Each in his own way stood for a quixotic, unlikely claim: that the blood-stained hulk of Communism wasn’t a permanent fixture of Europe. That for all its world-ending missiles and ruthless inquisitors, in fact it was fragile. It must be resisted. It might even be destroyed.
Now there’s a powerful documentary about the friendship of those two men, and their joint efforts to liberate half of Europe. The Divine Plan plays for a one-day special event on Wednesday, but if ticket sales are strong, it will see a wider release. (So you know what to do.)
I interviewed Prof. Paul Kengor, a scholar of Reagan’s life and of the history of Communism, about the movie.
A Pope and a President
What inspired you to help make a film about the cooperation of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan to resist Communism?
Paul Kengor: The film is Rob Orlando’s doing entirely. I helped in certain ways, but it’s really Rob’s film. The idea for the film began at Grove City College. Rob attended our April 2017 conference on the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution and Communism. I spoke on my book on Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. A Pope and a President was being released that May. Those film rights had already been purchased.
Rob set out to do his own thing entirely — a film documentary. He devised a compelling angle never pursued before. He analyzed John Paul II and Ronald Reagan from the vantage of their previous experiences as actors ascending a grand stage in the 1980s. This was maybe their biggest performance yet. A global theater in a real-life drama to defeat a genuinely Evil Empire and win the Cold War. These two religious actors — Reagan was also very devout — believed they were following a Divine Plan.
Two Assassins, Two Miracles
What were the apparently “miraculous” events connected with the Reagan/John Paul partnership?
Both men had survived assassination attempts in March and May 1981, only six weeks apart. They both could have and probably should have bled to death. They survived. And they considered their survivals to be God’s will, if not miraculous. They met one another for the first time at the Vatican a year later, in June 1982. There, they confided their mutual belief that God had spared their lives for a special purpose. Namely, to work together to defeat the scourge of atheistic Soviet Communism. Both felt they were called to that higher purpose — to such a Divine Plan. They spent the remainder of that decade pursuing that objective.
Rob Orlando’s film lays this out. It’s beautifully done, not just from a historical standpoint but artistically. Watch the film and you’ll see. It’s a visually riveting work.
Rob interviewed the top Reagan and John Paul biographers, staffers, and Cold War historians: Doug Brinkley, George Weigel, John O’Sullivan, H. W. Brands, Anne Applebaum, Richard V. Allen, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Robert Barron, Craig Shirley, James Rosebush, Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Monika Jablonska, Stephen Kotkin. I’m one among 14 interviewed.
The Divine Plan for Each of Us
What’s the most surprising thing people will take away from the film?
Importantly, the film deals not only with the historical but the theological and even the theatrical. It deals carefully and thoughtfully with the notion of a “Divine Plan,” and how and where and if we know if God is calling us to a certain purpose. That kind of discernment is always difficult for all believers.
“The only true freedom, the only freedom that can truly satisfy, is the freedom to do what we ought as human beings created by God according to his plan,” said Pope John Paul II. The trick, the difficulty for us all, is discerning precisely what God’s plan is. That’s never an easy process for any believer. It’s a perennial problem of mankind through the ages.
In fact, that’s one of the messages that we want audiences to take from this film. Most human beings, even the many so-called “nones” or non-affiliated in America today, still have an innate sense that they’re here for a reason. “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” Reagan and John Paul II struggled with that question as well. Oftentimes, we may not get a clearer answer until many years later, in retrospect — if at all. This film speaks to that discernment that we all struggle with and face.
I want modern audiences to regain a respect for faith, and how faith matters, and why religious freedom matters. Both Reagan and John Paul II were, of course, highly committed to religious freedom. Above all, they saw no greater threat to religious liberty than atheistic Soviet communism.
New Threats to Faith and Freedom
Do you see threats to religious freedom in America today that Reagan or John Paul prophetically warned about?
We in America and the West today are facing threats to religious freedom that we’ve never encountered before. No, we’re not being hauled off to gulags or tortured. This is a different kind of threat, based more on lawsuits and harassment than guns and gulags. Still, threats to religious freedom are ongoing. And these two men used their religious freedom in a most redeeming way to defeat a genuinely Evil Empire. The ennobled their religious freedom by directing it against religious repression.
How long is the film playing, where can people learn how to see it, and how else can they help?
It plays this Wednesday Nov. 6, as a one-night exclusive Fathom event in about 800 theaters across the country. If attendance is good, then Regal, AMC, Cinemark, etc., will re-order for a full week. So, it’s crucial that we get a strong showing on Nov. 6.
We Christians frequently complain that Hollywood doesn’t do or support enough faith-based films or meaningful films generally. Well, here’s a chance to show Hollywood that Christians are willing to support such films. If Hollywood sees that support, then maybe films like this can get funding in the future.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration.