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“There Is a Purpose to This”

On May 13, 1981, just six weeks after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II was shot in Saint Peter’s Square. Here, in this exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming book A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, Dr. Paul Kengor looks at reactions to the pope’s shooting from Washington to Moscow.


 

President Ronald Reagan’s diary entry for Wednesday, May 13, needed little elaboration: “Word brought to us of the shooting of the Pope. Called Cardinal Cooke & Cardinal [Krol]—sent message to Vatican & prayed.”[1]

There was not much more to do. In moments like this, he had learned well from his mother, you pray.

How sad the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II was. What a potential setback it was. Ronald Reagan had great ambitions to turn back the march of atheistic communism. And the pope was a big part of that plan.

Would the Holy Father survive? Would good prevail?

Going to Notre Dame

Ronald Reagan’s first major public appearance after the shooting of Pope John Paul II just happened to be an address at Notre Dame, a Catholic university named after its patroness, the Virgin Mary—the same Virgin Mary who was the patroness of John Paul II, and whom the Holy Father believed had spared his life the day of his shooting in Saint Peter’s Square. A Catholic screenwriter could not have written a better script for the actor-turned-president.

On May 17, President Reagan traveled to Notre Dame to give the commencement address. Fittingly, a commencement is not an end but a beginning, for in this speech Reagan publicly commenced his presidential crusade against atheistic communism.

Reagan laid out America’s Cold War challenge: “The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. . . . It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”

No else was making such audacious predictions at the time. Critics would scoff at the president’s claim.

The Notre Dame speech was distinctively Ronald Reagan, bearing his personal imprint throughout. Although speechwriter Tony Dolan wrote the original draft, Reagan rewrote the entire address. “Though the archives don’t show it,” Dolan told me, “the Gipper did a complete rewrite of my draft on this one. And then called me to apologize. Geez.”[2]

This highly personal speech drove home Reagan’s notion that Americans were part of a larger cause set forth by a higher authority. He drew on remarks Winston Churchill had made during the most ominous days of the Battle of Britain: “When great causes are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.” Reagan had used this quotation way back in October 1964, in his historic “Time for Choosing” speech. He cited it again at Notre Dame to suggest that Americans had a duty to fight expansionist Soviet communism.

Reagan followed the Churchill passage with a story from his experience filming the movie Knute Rockne, All American, about the legendary Notre Dame football coach. As a young actor in Hollywood, Reagan played one of Rockne’s top players, George Gipp, who on his deathbed told the coach, “Sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, ask ’em to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.” At the movie’s climax, Rockne tells his team the story to rally them for a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

Speaking at Notre Dame in 1981, Reagan asked his audience to “look at the significance of that story”:

Rockne could have used Gipp’s dying words to win a game any time. But eight years went by following the death of George Gipp before Rock revealed those dying words, his deathbed wish.

And then he told the story at halftime to a team that was losing, and one of the only teams he had ever coached that was torn by dissension and jealousy and factionalism. [None of] the seniors on that team . . . had known George Gipp. They were children when he played for Notre Dame. It was to this team that Rockne told the story and so inspired them that they rose above their personal animosities. For someone they had never known, they joined together in a common cause and attained the unattainable.

Reagan told the audience: “Now, it’s only a game. . . . But is there anything wrong with young people having an experience, feeling something so deeply, thinking of someone else to the point that they can give so completely of themselves? There will come times in the lives of all of us when we’ll be faced with causes bigger than ourselves, and they won’t be on a playing field.”

Just as Coach Rockne rallied a team torn by “dissension and jealousy and factionalism,” Coach Reagan seemed to be rallying his audience—and the broader American public—to “attain the unattainable.”

Later in the speech, Reagan made clear the stakes:

When it’s written, the history of our time won’t dwell long on the hardships of the recent past. But history will ask—and our answer [will] determine the fate of freedom for a thousand years—Did a nation born of hope lose hope? Did a people forged by courage find courage wanting? Did a generation steeled by hard war and a harsh peace forsake honor at the moment of great climactic struggle for the human spirit? . . . The answers are to be found in the heritage left by generations of Americans before us. They stand in silent witness to what the world will soon know and history someday record: that in its third century, the American Nation came of age, affirmed its leadership of free men and women serving selflessly a vision of man with God, government for people, and humanity at peace.

It is important to place these remarks in context: Just weeks had passed since Reagan’s brush with death. On Good Friday, April 17, Cardinal Terence Cooke had visited Reagan in the White House. “The hand of God was upon you,” Cooke told Reagan. Reagan agreed: “I know.” He then told Cooke, “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him.”

And, of course, John Paul II had nearly been killed only four days earlier. Reagan did not neglect that fact. Speaking of compassion, sacrifice, and endurance, the president noted the irony that “one who exemplifies [those traits] so well, Pope John Paul II, a man of peace and goodness, an inspiration to the world, would be struck by a bullet from a man towards whom he could only feel compassion and love.” Reagan went on: “It was John Paul II who warned in last year’s encyclical on mercy and justice [Dives in Misericordia] against certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice.” He quoted the Holy Father: “In the name of an alleged justice . . . the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty, or stripped of fundamental human rights.”

Here, Reagan (like the pope in his encyclical) did not use the word communism or socialism or Marxism. But there was no doubt about what he meant by “certain economic theories” that deprive people of basic rights and even kill to achieve their ends.

In retrospect, this was a telling insight into Ronald Reagan’s thinking on the assassination attempt. He seems to have linked John Paul II’s shooter to international communism. This oblique but potentially explosive suggestion somehow escaped notice at the time.

Interestingly, the passage on John Paul II does not appear in any of the multiple drafts of the Notre Dame speech on file at the Reagan Library today.[3] None of Tony Dolan’s drafts at the library include this paragraph. Thus it is possible, even likely, that Reagan wrote the passage into his text shortly before delivering the speech, which would not have been unusual for him. Given the subject matter and the fact that, as Dolan attested, Reagan did “a complete rewrite,” the speech clearly had significant meaning to the president.[4]

Ronald Reagan’s attention was fixed on Moscow. At a press conference just a couple of weeks after the Notre Dame address, he doubled down on his prediction that the West would transcend communism. When a reporter asked, “Do the events of the last ten months in Poland constitute the beginning of the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe?” Reagan answered:

Well, what I meant then in my remarks at Notre Dame and what I believe now about what we’re seeing tie together. I just think it is impossible—and history reveals this—for any form of government to completely deny freedom to people and have that go on interminably. There eventually comes an end to it. And I think the things we’re seeing, not only in Poland but the reports that are coming out of Russia itself about the younger generation and its resistance to long-time government controls, is an indication that communism is an aberration. It’s not a normal way of living for human beings, and I think we are seeing the first, beginning cracks, the beginning of the end.[5]

The Lady from Calcutta

A small but formidable woman from Calcutta had watched the shootings of Reagan and John Paul II with intense concern. Three weeks after the attempt on the pope’s life, Mother Teresa visited the White House, where she jolted President Reagan by affirming the sense of divine calling he had felt after the shooting.

On June 4, 1981, the president and first lady sat down for a private meal with the nun and a few selected guests. No cameras, no media. The servant to Calcutta’s destitute made an immediate impact on the host. Mother Teresa said: “Mr. President Reagan, do you know that we stayed up for two straight nights praying for you after you were shot? We prayed very hard for you to live.”[6]

Humbled, Reagan thanked her, but she wasn’t finished. She looked at the president pointedly and said: “You have suffered the passion of the cross and have received grace. There is a purpose to this. Because of your suffering and pain you will now understand the suffering and pain of the world.” She added, “This has happened to you at this time because your country and the world need you.”

Nancy Reagan dissolved into tears. Her husband, the great communicator, was at a loss for words.

The White House did not hold a press conference or photo op with Mother Teresa. The administration did not do much to document the encounter either.[7] Mother Teresa departed that afternoon as quietly as she came. But the sparse record we have suggests that the lady from Calcutta had made a profound impression on the president.

The official Public Papers of the President of the United States, which are silent on the lunch itself, register a short press exchange with the president just as the nun left:

 

Journalist (unidentified): How was your visit, Mr. President?

Reagan: Just wonderful. You can’t be in the presence of someone like that without feeling better about the world.

Journalist: What do you think about the tax plan?

Reagan: Well, I can’t talk about that now.

Journalist: What did you talk about with Mother Teresa?

Reagan: Her work, what she’s doing. And just as I said, really, here is someone who’s so optimistic about all of us, mankind, and what she’s trying to do is very inspiring.

Journalist: What impressed you most about her, sir?

Reagan: I guess she’s just the soul of kindness and great humility, because in all of her work and all that she’s done, she expresses thanks for having had the opportunity to do it.

Journalist: Thank you, sir.[8]

 

It was a brief exchange, not even 150 words. Reagan was in no frame of mind to talk tax cuts. He had been touched in an altogether different way. Reagan might have had in mind his words from the Notre Dame speech two and a half weeks earlier: at moments like this, we learn we are spirits, not animals, and that something is happening in space and time and beyond space and time that spells duty.[9]

A “Vile Concoction”

Meanwhile, the communists were going to great lengths to deny any role in the shooting of the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

On May 14, the day after the shooting, TASS, the Soviet news agency, released a terse statement: “According to a statement by a Vatican spokesman, Pope John Paul II remains in stable condition after undergoing five hours of surgery. The Pope was hit by three of the four bullets that the terrorist fired.”[10]

This was not accurate. Of course, Soviet press statements rarely were. The pope had been hit twice. Moscow was overly hopeful.

On May 15 came Pravda’s first published response to the shooting, the tone of which ought to have raised red flags to anyone familiar with Soviet propaganda. “The terrorist who yesterday tried to kill Pope John Paul II is a Turkish citizen,” the article started. “He is Mehmet Ali Agca, who in the past has had close ties with Turkey’s neofascist National Movement Party, whose leadership is currently on trial before a military tribunal for subversive activities in the country.” The brief article (213 words in English) made no mention of Agca’s connections to Moscow’s puppet regime in Bulgaria. It referred to Agca as a “neofascist” twice, a “terrorist” three times, a “murderer” and “criminal” and “killer” once each. Trying to cast Agca as a right-wing extremist, Pravda added that the perpetrator had killed a “liberal” Turkish newspaper editor. The terms Turkey, Turkish, and Turkish citizen appeared no less than seven times in the short article.[11]

Turk, Turk, Turk—Turk, Turk, Turk, Turk.

The Kremlin then went quiet until September, when a piece in the respected leftist British publication The Guardian, quoting unnamed Western sources, speculated on whether Moscow might have been involved in the shooting. A September 8 response in Izvestia, titled “Red Herring,” blasted The Guardian’s “ravings,” “nonsense,” and “vile concoction”—typical Soviet language. Izvestia tried to put the focus back on Agca:

On May 13, it will be recalled, there was an assassination attempt against the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. The Turk Mehmet Ali Agca who shot the Pope was arrested and put on trial. A great deal was written about this criminal action, and the would-be assassin was shown on television. It was established that he is a fascist and the murderer of a liberal Turkish journalist. He had been sentenced to death but escaped from jail under mysterious circumstances. Ali Agca had found powerful benefactors who had provided him with virtually unlimited funds, making it possible for him to travel freely in many countries. Naturally, it never occurred to anyone to portray this piece of scum as a “communist agent.”

But now The Guardian (or whoever gives the orders as to what is to be printed) has decided that this must be rectified without delay, and “rectified,” moreover, in such a way as to make people ashamed of the British paper’s ravings.

“Whoever gives the orders”? The Guardian most assuredly did not take orders from its government. No, that was the mode of operations in Moscow.

“It’s not hard to guess what these ravings are, or what their purpose is,” Izvestia continued. “Ali Agca’s shot was said to be the result of a plot—not a simple plot but an international one, organized by ‘countries of the Eastern bloc’!” The exclamation point conveyed just how preposterous such an allegation was. Izvestia said The Guardian ran this “nonsense,” based on unnamed sources, simply “to sow the seeds of doubt, mislead the public and serve the imperialist forces that are continuing to step up the anti-Soviet campaign, using it as a cover for their adventurist policies, giving further impetus to the arms race and aggravating the international situation.”

The committed leftists at The Guardian would have had a good chuckle seeing themselves accused of being imperialists and adventurists stoking the arms race for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

“The conclusion is obvious,” Izvestia wrote. “This new anti-Soviet concoction is as groundless as all the others. It’s being spread solely as a ‘red herring.’ ”[12]

From what my research reveals, this was the longest piece on the shooting of John Paul II to appear in the Soviet press up until that point. And it came in response to charges of Moscow complicity. That was probably not a coincidence.

A Pope and a President
A Pope and a President is now available for preorder

The Kremlin propaganda machine attacked anyone who dared to accuse the communists of malfeasance, including Claire Sterling, the leading journalist investigating the Bulgarian connection. In September 1982, Bulgaria’s communist regime would release a 178-page “report” taking aim at Sterling. This communist diatribe was titled Dossier on the Anatomy of a Calumny.[13]

It did not take long before both the Bulgarians and Soviets were contending that the CIA had tried to kill the pope. Yes, the CIA. Truly, nothing was beyond the communist propagandists.

 


Paul Kengor, PhD, is the New York Times bestselling author of God and Ronald Reagan, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, among other books. He is a professor of political science at Grove City College, where he serves as executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. This essay is an advance excerpt of his forthcoming book A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, which will be published in late April 2017 and can be preordered now from Amazon. 

 


[1] Though Reagan otherwise did not seem to suffer from a significant spelling disability, he wrote “Cardinal Crowell” here, which appears to be his spur-of-the-moment (pre-Google) phonetic spelling of Cardinal John Krol, the Philadelphia prelate with whom Reagan had a good relationship. Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 18.

[2] See my discussion of this in two pieces: Paul Kengor, “Reagan at Notre Dame,” National Review Online, May 16, 2011; Paul Kengor, “A Welcome Correction,” National Review Online, May 18, 2011.

[3] I reviewed these drafts personally at the Reagan Library in August 2015. My assistant David Kirk reviewed them in January 2015.

[4] Another possible explanation is, in my view, less likely: that the archives are missing a final draft of the speech that included such a passage.

[5] Reagan, “The President’s News Conference,” June 16, 1981.

[6] See: Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 124; Michael K. Deaver, A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years with Ronald Reagan (New York: Harper, 2001), 114.

[7] The records at the Reagan Library tell us only of a White House luncheon in the Family Dining Room that included twelve people: President Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Mother Teresa, a Sister Priscilla (described as a “traveling aide to Mother Teresa”), a Mrs. Vi Collins (the U.S. sponsor to Mother Teresa), Michael Deaver, Senator Mark Hatfield and his wife, Thomas Getman (chief legislative aide to Hatfield), Patricia Bye (described as secretary to the “Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff”), a John Billings, and a Mercedes Wilson. The President’s Daily Diary for that June 4, held today in the Reagan Library, records that from 12:28 p.m. to 1:34 p.m. the president and first lady had lunch with Mother Teresa and then escorted her to her motorcade on the South Grounds and bid her farewell. The diary then notes that from 1:34 p.m. to 1:39 p.m. the president “participated in a question and answer session with members of the press” and quickly returned to the Oval Office.

[8] Reagan, “Exchange with Reporters Following a Luncheon with Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” June 4, 1981.

[9] In May 1985, Reagan would award Mother Teresa the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Over the years, Mother Teresa wrote and called President Reagan asking for his and his country’s assistance in helping her feed the world’s poor, and always telling the president, “I will pray for you.” On October 19, 1984, for example, she sent Reagan a two-page handwritten letter that closed with the words “I will pray for you.” Reagan responded with a telephone call, as recommended in an October 26, 1984, memo on White House letterhead by staff member Michael A. McManus Jr. Another memo on White House letterhead (no author listed) from September 17, 1987, noted Mother Teresa was expected to call the president. These documents are on file at the Reagan Library.

[10] TASS statement, May 14, 1981, republished in Current Digest of the Soviet Press 33, no. 20 (June 17, 1981): 18.

[11] A. Filippov, “Concerning the Attempt on the Life of John Paul II,” Pravda, May 15, 1981, republished in Current Digest of the Soviet Press 33, no. 20 (June 17, 1981): 18.

[12] M. Mikhailov, “Red Herring,” Izvestia, September 8, 1981, republished in Current Digest of the Soviet Press 33, no. 36 (October 7, 1981): 16.

[13] Claire Sterling, The Time of the Assassins (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985), 134–35, 151–52, 164, 167–69, 183.

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