For Newt Gingrich, conversion happened naturally.
“I feel like what happened was I became Catholic over time and then realized. It wasn’t like one morning I woke up and said, `You know, I think I’ll be Catholic,’ but rather the process surrounded me, absorbed me,” Gingrich said in an exclusive interview with The Hoya on his official switch to Catholicism last March.
Rep. Gingrich (R-Ga.), former speaker of the House of Representatives, joined by his wife Callista, spoke over the phone about the development of their new documentary on Pope John Paul II. Titled “Nine Days That Changed the World,” the film will be screened during the Gingrichs’ visit to campus on Monday.
Gingrich, a long-time Baptist before his highly publicized conversion last year, said producing “Nine Days” was the intellectual precursor that brought his spiritual journey full circle.
The documentary examines John Paul’s landmark 1979 visit to his home country of Poland while citizens were subject to communist rule.
The Gingrichs’ maintain that some aspects of communism – namely a vice-grip on freedoms of religious expression – still resonate today, especially in Western democracies.
“I think many Americans can identify with having a state which is anti-religious and which is seeking to create an entirely secular square,” Gingrich said, drawing a comparison between a 21st-century United States and a Soviet-era Poland, when prohibition of school prayer was the norm.
Callista agreed. “We’re seeing a growing secularism in this country, and we see it when we see opposition to school prayer and when crosses are taken down or covered. Even in Western democracies, the basic right of religious liberty is often threatened,” she said.
Last April, Georgetown was subject to similar threads of criticism. When the Obama White House requested the covering of the “IHS” symbol that adorned the backdrop of the Gaston Hall stage where the president was set to speak, the move spurred a torrent of backlash from students, faculty and alumni. Gingrich voiced his objection to the administrative call.
“When you go back to the founding of Georgetown and you look at the way in which for years, people scrimped and saved to find the pennies to launch Georgetown as a center of faith,” Gingrich said, invoking the university’s roots. “It was truly trite of their memory to allow an anti-religious White House to cover up the symbol of the cross.”
Gingrich said he believes the pope’s subtle undermining of communism in the 1970s shown in the documentary should set the example for the next steps in eliminating what he perceives as rampant secularism.
“Just as the Pope proved in nine days that changed the world in 1979, you don’t know in fact, when there’ll be a sudden catalytic moment and people will rediscover the depth of their belief in God and decide they don’t want the state to drive God out of their lives,” Gingrich said.
Callista said John Paul’s visit packed a punch, “creating a revolution of conscience that transformed Poland and reshaped the spiritual and political landscape in the 20th century.”
For the couple, last Saturday’s plane crash was personal. The fatal accident that wiped out a large swath of Poland’s political leadership cut short the lives of two figures the couple interviewed in their documentary: the chief of staff of President Lech Kaczynski, who was also killed, and Anna Walentynowicz, one of the founding leaders of Solidarity, the group that resisted communist rule in Poland partly due to John Paul’s role as an inspiration for the movement.
“Nine Days That Changed the World” premiered on April 9 at a theater in Mount Vernon, Va., and the Gingrichs stopped at the Catholic University of America on Tuesday to screen the film. Before coming to Georgetown, the couple will travel to Naples, Fla. for a Sunday showing at Ave Maria School of Law. International locations for future screenings include Warsaw and Krakow, Poland, as well as Rome. Gingrich said in the interview that there are plans to show the film at Harvard, an institution he said was “hardly a bastion of deep religious activity.”