Newt Gingrich came to town yesterday. In the morning, he spoke to a breakfast gathering in Boston hosted by Catholic Citizenship; in the evening, he was at Harvard to speak at the Kennedy School. Gingrich, of course, is an interesting figure for a lot of reasons; I wanted to talk with him about his recent conversion to Catholicism, and the film he is now making about Pope John Paul II's 1979 visit to Poland. The interview was pretty limited -- I had seven minutes with him at the venerable Union Club on Beacon Hill -- but here's what he had to say in that period of time:
Q: Can you first tell me why you wanted to become a Catholic?
A: I don't know that I wanted to become a Catholic so much as I became a Catholic. I don't know that it was volitional in that sense. Having gone to the basilica (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington) with my wife, who sings in the choir there, for about a decade, I think it gradually grew on me. And when Pope Benedict came to the basilica for vespers with the bishops, and my wife and the choir were singing, and I was allowed to come as a spouse -- I had been talking with Monsignor Rossi, who is the rector of the basilica, for about five years, just about faith, and secularism, the challenges we have in the modern world with our civilization, and that afternoon seeing Pope Benedict XVI fairly close up, and both really believing in his central theme of 'Christ Our Hope,' and seeing the joy in his eyes, fundamentally different than the news media portrait of a severe German intellectual, something in me just was triggered. And I said to Monsignor Rossi that night that I wanted to convert. And we spent the following six or eight months studying with Monsignor Rossi, and it was more a process of becoming more and more comfortable that this was -- this is -- the place that I belong, and the taking of the Eucharist is the experience that enriches my life.
Q: How did you think about Catholicism, growing up among Protestants?
A: I grew up all over the world. I was born in Pennsylvania, and was raised originally as a Lutheran, and then was, my dad was in the Army, so I was whatever the Protestant chaplain was. I was at one point a Presbyterian acolyte. And I think, as a professional historian, you can't study modern European history without some sense of the church, and the sense of the depth and the history of the church. I think, probably from the time I was a child, when my dad was stationed in France…this sense of the -- I may use the word wrong -- but the sense of the magisterium of the church, the sense of the power and majesty of the church, the fact that you're dealing with 2,000 years of history. My dad had studied Augustine in college, and had a copy of Augustine's 'City of God' when I was a child, and you just had this sense of, that you are encountering a continuum of effort to understand God and to explain God to humans, that is pretty overwhelming.
Q: Tell me about how you decided to make a film about a pope as one of your first public acts as a Catholic?
A: Well, we had made a movie, called 'Rediscovering God in America,' which really contextualized American history, in terms of the Washington monuments. Then, we made a film about Reagan, called 'Rendezvous with Destiny,' and in filming the Reagan movie, we had gone to Gdansk, and interviewed Lech Walesa, and we had gone to Prague, and interviewed Vaclav Havel, and both said in their interviews that the decisive moment in the breaking of the Soviet Union was June of 1979, and the pope's 9-day visit. As we thought about that, and began to put it in context, I'd been reading Weigel, starting with 'The Cube and the Cathedral,' and then 'The Final Revolution' and then his biography of the pope, and if you read 'The Final Revolution,' Weigel really argues that the central role of religious belief and the central role of religious organization was at the center of what was happening in Eastern Europe. And then when you interview Lech Walesa, he says, 'You can't understand what happened with Solidarity if you don't understand what the church was doing, if you don't understand what the pope was doing.' And even Vaclav Havel, who is a playwright, was saying – he's not Polish, but he's saying, 'As a neighboring Czech, let me tell you what it meant to us to have a Slavic pope and to have somebody who understood tyranny' and so forth. So I dug into all of that. And then you get to this extraordinary story of the pope, who is born about a year and a half after Poland becomes a country again for the first time since 1793; as a teenager, sees Poland destroyed again by Germany and the Soviet Union; participates in the Rhapsodic Theater at a time when it means a death penalty, in order to sustain Polish culture; enters the seminary for the priesthood at a time when there's a death penalty; becomes a priest under the emerging Communist dictatorship; serves all of his priesthood under the Communists; knew many Jews, understood Auschwitz, has a childhood friend who is Jewish; and this is the man who, in 1978, becomes pope. I mean it is an extraordinary moment in history. And he is an athletic energetic actor who is a charismatic leader. And he has the key underlying insight that you defeat Communism at a cultural level, that you pit the cross against the Soviet emblem, and that the cross ultimately will defeat atheism.
Q: Do you see this as a personal film in any way, or is this purely an academic, documentary exercise?
A: No, I think this which will be -- if we can do it right, and this is a big challenge -- this is a film which I hope will be personal, immediate, people won't walk out and say, 'Gee, that was interesting 30 years ago,' they'll walk out and say, 'What does this mean for my life in my country today.' We hope to translate the film into Mandarin, and we've been asked to translate it now into Vietnamese because there are 5 million Vietnamese Catholics; we hope to translate it into Polish, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, because we see this as a universal film that has an impact for people everywhere on the planet.
Q: So do you still have political aspirations, or is filmmaking now your mission?
A: I think I have a public citizen aspiration. Whether it goes beyond that, we'll find out over the next few years.
(Photos, by David L. Ryan of the Globe staff, show Newt Gingrich at the Union Club in Boston on Oct. 8, 2009.)