Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima
(COMMENTARY) The world was buzzing with rumors about U.S.-Soviet talks as President Ronald Reagan flew to Italy for a global economic summit in the summer of 1987.
There were only two events on Reagan's schedule before the Group of Seven sessions – a June 6 meeting with Pope John Paul II and a hush-hush briefing beforehand by U.S. Vatican Ambassador Frank Shakespeare.
The secret topic, at Reagan's request: The visions of Our Lady of Fatima to three children in Portugal in 1917, including prophecies linking St. Mary, Russia and, the world would later learn, the shooting of a "bishop in white." This was crucial information about John Paul II.
The pope believed Mary intervened to save his life on May 13, 1981, when an assassin tied to Bulgarian spies and Soviet military intelligence gunned him down in St. Peter's Square – on the 64th anniversary of the first Fatima vision.
The pope needed six pints of blood to survive. Reagan required eight pints during surgery after he was shot six weeks earlier, on March 30th. He was convinced his survival was part of a divine plan, which Reagan called the "DP."
Reagan met John Paul II for the first time a year after the shootings. He told the pope: "Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened."
Clearly, the Soviet plans "backfired," said author Paul Kengor, in an Oct. 22 lecture at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.
"The Soviets were worried about an alliance. Right? So they wanted to end this alliance – especially by getting rid of the pope," he said, speaking on the feast day of St. John Paul II.
Instead, these men went on to hold five strategic meetings, backed by an unknown number of back-channel contacts. Kengor's book about their friendship, "A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Story of the 20th Century," was published in 2017.
"Well, you really screwed this up," said Kengor, who teaches at Grove City College. "Now, these two – they've got the world's most exclusive, mutual prayer society. They've got a bond that no pope and president may ever have."
There was no translator present in the 1987 Vatican meeting between Reagan and the multilingual John Paul II. The president told aides that they discussed U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear arms control and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
But in his public statement afterwards Reagan also included strong words about the future of Poland. John Paul II was days away from another trip to his homeland.
Reagan mentioned the importance of God's gift of "free will," then added: "Perhaps it's not too much to hope that true change will come to all countries that now deny or hinder the freedom to worship God. And perhaps we'll see that change come through the reemergence of faith, through the irresistible power of a religious renewal."
When vetting this speech, State Department officials cut Reagan's remarks on God, prayer and faith, noted Kengor. Reagan's team put the lines back in, since the president had dictated every word in that part of the speech.
Six days after that meeting with John Paul II, Reagan won another battle with cautious diplomats – who tried to remove a provocative passage in his June 12 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you want peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate," said Reagan, before speaking the words others wanted removed. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
It's impossible to know if the Protestant president and the future saint talked about the Berlin Wall, during their June 6 meeting, said Kengor, reached by telephone. But it's hard to imagine that they didn't discuss – again – their convictions that God spared their lives for a reason.
"These two men may have only met – face-to-face – five times, but the bond between them was strong," said Kengor. "They had faith and they also had courage – guts. … They were both former actors who could command a stage. They both believed they were part of a larger, divine plan. They only met five times, but they made the most of their time together."