Few Catholics today truly understand the significance of the role that Pope John Paul II played in the fall of the Soviet Communist regime. Even Catholics who grew up with his Pontificate did not understand the value of his actions until later on. Newt and Callista Gingrich’s new documentary offers the contemporary Catholic a chance to see much of that first-hand.
“Nine Days that Changed the World” is a documentary about Pope John Paul II’s trip to his homeland, Poland, in 1979. Though the trip did not have the world glued to the TV screen, it was nevertheless an event that served to slowly change the world. The documentary, as all documentaries do, features interviews with a variety of international experts, not all of whom speak English. All of them, however, have had their lives touched by the late pontiff in a very meaningful way. From Pope John Paul’s official biographer to a Polish man who saw the Pope speak in Poland in 1979, each of the film’s speakers conveys a meaningful message.
What makes “Nine Days that Changed the World” incredibly unique is the never-before-seen footage of the Pope’s visit. As the communist authorities were very fearful of the impact of the Pope’s visit to Poland, they were more fearful of what would happen if they did not allow the Pope to visit his homeland. Thus, they did everything in their power to minimize the impact of his visit. Most of the television footage that has descended to us today features wide shots panning the audience as well as distant shots of the Pope, often with his voice drowned out by commentary.
However, the Gingriches discovered that the Polish Bishops, not trusting the communist authorities, gave video cameras to people in the crowd, telling them to record the event. The footage became part of the archives of Polish National Radio, and has been used extensively in this documentary. While it is not the same quality image as the High Definition images produced in the current epoch, it helps to add a sense of perspective to the film. And it certainly makes it more real. For those who are too young to remember the younger Pope John Paul, the footage is compelling. And for anyone fascinated with the history of Eastern Europe, the close-up shots of the solidarity banners and the large gatherings of people in the streets are fascinating. Of course, for any human being, John Paul II’s message of human dignity and religious freedom are extremely powerful.
While the film is stunning for the original footage it brings to the screen (and the footage is indeed unique) its message is also timeless. “Be not afraid,” the Pope told his countrymen. In the documentary “we really do try to echo his message that no state or government can come between you and God. And that our only freedom, our true freedom, can only be achieved and sustained through our faith,” said Callista Gingrich.
What Pope John Paul II did during his nine day pilgrimage in Poland was to give hope to a nation that had been oppressed for a century. Stood before a nation of people whose life had been an “every day grayness” and gave them vigor. He showed them the power of the cross, the value of their lives and the dignity of their being. And he was a witness to them that no person, government, or law could take away their faith, their love, and their hope. His words are no less relevant to citizens of any other country who are suffering oppression by their government and society.
“Nine Days that Changed the World” is one of the truly great Catholic documentaries. Yet it does not appeal to Catholics alone, and one doesn’t have to be a Catholic to see and understand it. Pope John Paul II loved the world and changed the world and he spoke to all of mankind. Yet, viewing this film through a lens of faith is truly a rewarding experience.
The documentary premiered in Warsaw and Rome earlier this month. It has already made a tour of the United States, and is available on DVD. To schedule a screening, for more information, or to order the DVD, see the website: www.ninedaysthatchangedtheworld.com
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.