Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently traveled to Notre Dame to present a documentary highlighting the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to communist Poland and the pope’s role in inspiring the Polish people to strive for political liberty. The event was co-sponsored by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture (CEC) and Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

Gingrich’s presence sparked some protest among faculty and students. Twelve individuals held an hour-long vigil outside Washington Hall before the film’s screening. A Rover reporter who witnessed the protest observed that the protest attracted a group comprised of both students and adults.

            One critic approached philosophy professor and Director of the Center for Ethics and Culture Dr. David Solomon as he walked to one of his classes, yelling that Solomon had brought “filth” to campus. Romance Languages and Literature professor Julia Douthwaite submitted a letter to The Observer in which she criticized the University for sponsoring Gingrich’s trip to campus:

“Notre Dame policies and Notre Dame double standards never cease to amaze and appall those of us who work here: just two days after we faculty and staff received a letter reminding us of the policy that prohibits using university funds to sponsor partisan speakers to campus, Notre Dame received the Republican poster-boy Newt Gingrich, who was in town to “Stump for Walorski” according to today’s South Bend Tribune. Great use of university subsidies, to pay for Newt’s trip to town. Great way to reveal the double standard operating on this campus and its non-partisan politics.”

A tenured Arts and Letters faculty member suggested that Douthwaite was forced to retract her statement by a Dean of Arts and Letters, as its accusations proved to be inaccurate.  The Observer ran a letter to the editor from Douthwaite in which she acknowledged her mistakes and corrected the claims she previously made. She clarified:

“1. No Notre Dame funds were used to bring Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich to town (i.e. travel expenses).

2. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Gingrich made political comments on campus – notwithstanding the unfortunate and misleading juxtaposition of the photo and headline in the South Bend Tribune. (Their presence as special guests and speakers on campus is another issue. Some might say that is symbolic in itself.)

3. The only expenditure of University funds was for the rental of Washington Hall and the cost of a small reception after the screening.

4. The University did not have anything to do with, or was even aware of, other activities that Mr. Gingrich scheduled while he was in town.

5. No University funds went to his travel or lodging, or meals.”

                Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism, produced the film rooted in the belief that the communist ideologies against which John Paul II fought in Poland still pose a threat to modern Americans. Gingrich commented before the screening of the documentary that “The message of this film is not just for those places that might have overt dictatorships such as Cuba or China but are also for those places in the West that have aggressively and abundantly used courts and bureaucracies to weaken the religious impulse and the right of individuals to approach God on their own terms.” He also noted that conflict has existed between secular governments and free peoples throughout all of history.

               The film begins with footage taken from the pope’s pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. Crowds of millions gather simply to see the pope, lining the streets and attending the various Masses and prayer services he offers for the Polish people.

The film shows footage from a major Mass held in Warsaw’s crowded Victory Square, as the pope, on an altar platform marked with a 50-foot cross, encouraged the people to remain strong in their faith.He famously exhorted his countrymen, “Be not afraid,” and prays, “Let Your Spirit descend and change the image of the land… this land.” An uninterrupted 14 minutes of applause answered these statements following their delivery.

                The film follows the rest of the pope’s pilgrimage as he made visits and offered prayers at the historic sites of Poland, carefully taking note of the Christian significance of the landmarks. The pope encountered immediate resistance from the communist authorities, who used the state-controlled media to give the impression that the pope’s rallies attracted only priests, religious, and the pious elderly. Far from deterring the Polish people, the documentary depicts how they recognized the absurdity of the media’s attempt at diminishing the pope’s presence and how it ultimately led to greater fervor mounted against the communist regime.

                Even after the pope left Poland, the people did not forget his encouragement. Devout Poles laid flowers at the location of the  cross erected for the pope’s Mass in Victory Square (which the communist regime promptly removed) and rallied for workers’ rights.

A year after the pope’s visit, the Polish government granted the people the first non-communist labor union formed behind the Iron Curtain, Solidarity. By the end of the decade, the Solidarity movement had won enough seats in the government to dismantle the communist government, and, for the second time since 1795, Poland was free.

                The movie concludes with the pope’s historic funeral, a funeral which attracted three million pilgrims to the Eternal City, effectively doubling its population. The millions who came, the majority of whom would not even be able to be within sight of Vatican City, felt a need to be physically present to thank the pope for his contribution to the fall of communism. In 2009, the mayor of Warsaw, in the presence of the Polish president, erected a 30-foot cross in Piłsudski Square (previously known as Victory Square).  The crossreplaces the original that was torn down by the communist government and commemorates the pope’s 1979 mass and his role in Poland’s liberation.


                Dale Parker has to suppress the urge to begin every sentence with a nominative absolute. He can be reached at Gabby Speach 

contributed reporting to this article.