“There Is a Purpose to This”
by Paul Kengor
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.”
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.”
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. 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.
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.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.”
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. 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.