Paul Kengor’s latest book reads like a Russian novel with an intriguing series of themes woven into a grand narrative. He asks: Is Faith at the heart of history? Well, take a breath or perhaps say a prayer. In A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, May 2017), Kengor proclaims a resounding Yes!
In this compelling new study of the relationship between America’s 40th president and the Holy Father, Kengor reveals how these men of faith, these firm friends, navigated the economic turmoil and political unrest that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War. “They chose the side of good against evil,” writes Kengor, “and in coming together to do so rewrote the ending of the story of 20th century history.”
But how can a story so profound have gone unnoticed by the mainstream for so long? This new and revealing account of history shines much-needed light on this hidden mid-century moment. Kengor also illuminates old categories of East versus West,
communism versus capitalism, and good versus evil, suggesting they might all be part of “The Divine Plan.”
His intricate storylines include the prophetic vision of Lady Fatima, which in 1917 foretold the coming tragedy of communism. Kengor describes the intimate partnership of faith between Reagan and the Polish-born John Paul II, common life experiences, and how they stood with Lech Walesa, who survived imprisonment and torture at the hands of Soviet henchmen. Kengor argues that the false promises of a Soviet utopia were rotten and unsustainable.
A Pope and a President is written with ease but is not easy reading—although it rewards the attentive reader. Dark and light passages undulate within a symphony of currents, breaking out of linear events to unmask an underlying story about the forces of deep religious faith of men and women in Poland standing alone against unbridled sinister forces of military and political power. Throughout his narrative, Kengor makes the case that events — from the visions of Fatima to the fall of the Berlin Wall — happened for a reason. Faith and courage guided history, which was in turn guided by The Divine Plan.
Kengor breaks ground where others have chosen not to by seeing scholarly findings in a new light, the light of faith. Many of the arguable facts have been there always but were conveyed from a modernist perspective (perhaps too “sophisticated” for such elemental ideas); a perspective that rightfully abhors nazism but curiously gives a pass to communism. Kengor’s book says, Enough! The Red Scare was a red terror, and its attack on the church was a destructive force, equal to the evil of nazism and leading to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. His revalidation of faith delves into this utter madness, but what emerges is a message of hope, inspired by people of resilient faith.
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To chart this faith-based course through the Cold War, Kengor topples the bulwarks of the other, accusatory side and poses some important questions. Was Pope XII Hitler’s Pope? Many forerunners have agreed he was complicit in the takeover of Nazi Germany and in the horrors of the Holocaust. Was communism a cut above the brutalities of Nazi Germany, a misguided Stalin versus a demonic Hitler? Were communists and their followers all non-religious actors, only mesmerized by the atheistic ideals of the state, a new 20th century God?
Kengor advocates that the Catholic Church was not a bastion of fascists during World War II; instead he portrays Cardinal Pacelli, later Pope XII, as a decent man who quietly saved an estimated 700,000 Jews. Kengor argues that Pacelli only measured his open speech to assuage the Nazis for fear of retribution in mostly Catholic states. As for a comparison between communism and nazism, both Reagan and Pope John Paul II believed the two were a seamless horror show. Though The Soviets under Stalin were a necessary (if evil) partner in ending World War II, by the mid 1940s through 1950s, the alliance was unmasked as a Faustian bargain. It was at the costly Yalta conference that Stalin began where Hitler left off. Kengor points to the subsequent slaughter of anyone threatening Stalin’s despotic power, and that included the entire Polish Catholic leadership, all of which a young John Paul had witnessed in a seminary forced underground by the Nazis.
Kengor’s sweeping overview of Hegelian-like significance traces the ideologies of nazism replaced by those of communism as a reminder of “the bad” in Saint Augustine’s City of God. The same progression also serves as a reminder that politics at the top should be a reflection of personal belief — including faith — at the bottom. Kengor’s analysis reminds us, too, that between1917 and 1989 even savage mass murder could not crush the human spirit or, as in the case of Reagan and John Paul II, faith in God — despite their separate assassination attempts.
Kengor makes a convincing case that the KGB was behind the attempt on the Pope’s life in 1981. John Paul himself believed it, and according to Kengor, so did William Casey, head of the CIA under Reagan. The Soviets feared that if the forces of an oppressed Catholic religion were unleashed, there would be no turning back and the empire would fall.
In retrospect, could the bullets that spilled pints of blood from both a President and Pope have been spilled for a cause much bigger than the political reunification of Poland? As Reagan’s mother, Nelle often told her ever-optimistic son, “All things were part of God’s plan.” John Paul II saw his pilgrimage to Fatima in 1982 as recognition of the divine plan in his life, which began with his birth in Krakow and was a continuing commitment of faith.
Kengor’s book is a true clarion call to those dismissive of religion or its impact on the 20th century. Faith, however an individual defines it, offers light during the world’s darkest hours, even when tyranny arrives under the guise of a promised utopia. That same faith remains a force of optimism and righteous action on behalf of human dignity and human solidarity even today even if we don’t always recognize The Divine Plan.