For the past three months we have celebrated the story of Our Lady of Fatima in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of her appearances. This month, we bring the message of Fatima to its conclusion by reflecting on the impact Our Lady had on the lives of two men whose lives were intertwined with the message. Both men nearly lost their lives prematurely to an assassin’s bullet. Both believed their lives were miraculously spared for a special purpose, to bring an end to atheistic Soviet communism.
On June 7, 1982 President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II met at the Vatican to compare notes. On March 30, 1981 Reagan had been shot on the left side of his chest. A month and a half later, on May 13 – the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima – the Pope was shot in the abdomen. Both men were profoundly anti-communist during their formative years. Reagan battled the influence of card-carrying members of the Communist Party USA in the film industry in the 1940s and 50s, while during the same time Karol Wojtyla, who also worked as an actor at that time, experienced first-hand the takeover of his homeland by the Soviets in the post-World War II era.
In October of 1978 Cardinal Wojtyla was elected the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years. His devotion to Mary became apparent from the very start of this Papacy, as he accepted his election with these words: “With obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, in spite of great difficulties, I accept.” Less than a year later, in June of 1979, the Pontiff made the first pastoral visit by a Pope to a communist country when he visited his Polish homeland. The following year, the trade union Solidarity was founded, which gained the support of the Catholic Church.
During the next few years, John Paul made eight additional trips to Poland, the most visited country during his papacy. It was during his second visit in June of 1983 that he met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in a private meeting.
In January of 1984, diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See were re-established when President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II agreed to exchange Ambassadors. In April, The United States established an embassy to the Holy See, when William A. Wilson presented his credentials to the Pope, elevating his position from Personal Representative of the President to U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. The following month, the two met in Fairbanks, Alaska. President Reagan’s words on that occasion reflected a new partnership between the United States and the Holy See:
“To us, Your Holiness, the Holy See and your pastorate represent one of humanity’s greatest moral and spiritual forces. And your visit is particularly significant, coming as it does soon after the reestablishment of relations between the Holy See and the United States. For over a century we maintained warm and fruitful, but informal relations. Now we have exchanged Ambassadors, and we hope to build on this new relationship to our mutual benefit and to the benefit of peace-loving people everywhere.”
And build they did, establishing a partnership that would see the demise of the “Evil Empire”. But this partnership may have had some divine assistance. In 1987 President Reagan addressed the Assembly of the Republic of Portugal. His appearance before that legislative chamber was boycotted by the communist members of the assembly. During his address, he invoked the Blessed Virgin Mary and her appearance to the children at Fatima:
“No one has done more to remind the world of the truth of human dignity, as well as the truth that peace and justice begins with each of us, than the special man who came to Portugal a few years ago after a terrible attempt on his life. He came here to Fatima, the site of your great religious shrine, to fulfill his special devotion to Mary, to plead for forgiveness and compassion among men, to pray for peace and the recognition of human dignity throughout the world.
“When I met Pope John Paul II a year ago in Alaska, I thanked him for his life and his apostolate. And I dared to suggest to him the example of men like himself and in the prayers of simple people everywhere, simple people like the children of Fatima, there resides more power than in all the great armies and statesmen of the world.”
Well just two years later, the prayers of a simple people were answered. In the interim, Pope John Paul II worked behind the scenes with Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland, while in Berlin President Reagan challenged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. In 1989 the Berlin Wall did come down, and so did the Iron Curtain surrounding Poland and eastern Europe. Open elections were held in Poland, Solidarity won a landslide victory and formed a coalition government. The following year Lech Walesa was elected as Poland’s president, transforming the country into a market economy.