The 20th Century Ends


The story of the life and death of Pope John Paul II is hard to tell without running into some mystical language along the way.

When it happened, how it happened, is difficult to assimilate intellectually. Perhaps this is why: With the death of Pope John Paul II, it seems that the 20th century has finally ended, a bit late, and the 21st century has only now begun. This could not have been foreseen on, say, December 31, 1999, but only seems clearer now, given the events of the last week. Terri Schiavo is one lens through which we can better understand John Paul's life and death. Another lady, one who was reportedly seen in Fatima almost 90 years ago, is the other.

In the spring of 1916, in a place called Fatima in northern Portugal, three children, including a girl named Lucia — who just died on February 13 at the age of 97 — claimed to have a number of conversations with the Virgin Mary. The appearances occurred over several consecutive months on the 13th of each month. The most sensational of these apparitions produced what was said to be a miracle — the so-called “miracle of the sun” — reportedly witnessed by a massive crowd of some 70,000, including innumerable skeptics. The mother of Christ, however, was said to deliver more than a miracle. According to Lucia and her friends, she delivered three messages.

Though a great world war, WWI, was currently waging, the Lady of Fatima had the audacity to predict that another great war would soon follow. That was one secret. The second secret warned about atheistic Communism, namely Bolshevik Russia: “Russia will spread its errors throughout the world, raising up wars and persecutions of the Church” in the century ahead. Russia would be an “instrument of chastisement.” Keep in mind that this prophecy, made July 13, 1916, was shared over a full year before the Bolsheviks somehow managed to do the once unthinkable: Take power in Russia in October 1917 — at which point Lenin and his minions proceeded to spend the next decades fulfilling what was forewarned at Fatima.

What was the third secret? The Vatican literally sealed the third secret in a vault until the 1980s. Some feared it predicted a third world war, or Armageddon. It turns out that it purportedly envisioned an assassination attempt on a pope. On another 13th in the spring, May 13, 1981, the latter occurred, though John Paul II was spared, and convinced that the protective hand of Mary kept that bullet from killing him. This was a pope who had long before dedicated his life, priesthood, and papacy to Mary, as had his native country of Poland and hometown of Krakow.

The Evil Empire Tries to Eliminate A Key Enemy

There's a news item from the last week that ties into this all. On March 30, it was reported that new documents found in the file of former East German intelligence services confirm that the 1981 assassination attempt was ordered by the Soviet KGB and assigned to Bulgarian agents, who enlisted the help of Turkish extremists, including Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who fired the bullet. The East German secret police, the vicious Stasi, was tasked to coordinate the operation and cover it up. The KGB’s involvement is something that many always suspected, including John Paul II himself.

If this account is accurate, then it seems it would connect the first and third secrets of Fatima: Among the “errors” and “persecutions,” the crime to be committed by atheistic-Communist Russia, was, apparently, the attempted assassination of the Catholic Church. The evil work of the Bolshevik empire wasn’t finished. It had dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses,” a “necrophilia” and an “abomination” (Lenin’s loving words), “stupidity,” had blown up chapels, arrested and shot priests, jailed nuns in special sections of the gulag with prostitutes, and generally carried out, as Mikhail Gorbachev called it, a “brutal war on religion,” but it still had a holy father — the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination — to murder. Bolshevik Russia still had some blood to spill. the USSR, there was literally no worse time in all of history for the Vatican to reach into Poland to tap its first non-Italian pope in 455 years and first Slavic pope ever. Karol Wojtyla’s appointment was like a nuclear bomb to Soviet Communism, and the Kremlin knew it. When the native son dramatically appeared before millions of Polish people in 1979 and told them to “be not afraid,” the Soviet leadership was terrified.

The Soviets wanted to assassinate this new pope because they understood, as did Ronald Reagan and the team he assembled in Washington — which included an instrumental aide, a devout Roman Catholic named William P. Clark — that Poland was the linchpin in the Soviet bloc. Moreover, it was the only nation within the Soviet empire that managed to survive the atheistic-Communist assault on religion. It survived because of its staunch Catholicism. Thus, to the USSR, there was literally no worse time in all of history for the Vatican to reach into Poland to tap its first non-Italian pope in 455 years and first Slavic pope ever. Karol Wojtyla’s appointment was like a nuclear bomb to Soviet Communism, and the Kremlin knew it. When the native son dramatically appeared before millions of Polish people in 1979 and told them to “be not afraid,” the Soviet leadership was terrified. There was no question: He had to go.

Ultimately, John Paul II survived the assassination attempt to join forces with Ronald Reagan — who also had survived a bullet, only six weeks earlier — to undermine Soviet Communism in Poland and then all of Eastern Europe. He became one of the three most important individuals in the fall of Communism.

That battle ended in 1991, Christmas Day of 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post as head of the USSR, thereby also retiring the USSR itself. The Cold War was over.

Dedication to Life

What would be John Paul II’s next battle? Or was his work finished? The answer came in the mid 1990s with the publication of his seminal encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, "The Gospel of Life." As the scourge of abortion continued to replicate and the world speeded downward ever faster into euthanasia — killing unwanted, inconvenient human beings — John Paul II coined the phrase that summed up the crisis best. The world’s next great moral battle was the battle for life. The world was now confronted with a choice: a choice between a Culture of Life and a Culture of Death.

The acuteness of this battle came to the fore in America over the last three weeks with the Terri Schiavo case. As Schiavo was forcibly starved, the only words that seemed to sum up the grisly spectacle were John Paul II’s. No matter where I turned on my radio dial, I heard those words over and over: Culture of Death. I heard the phrase at least a half-dozen times on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast on Schiavo’s death, spoken almost exclusively by evangelicals. I heard it from secular programming among all the various syndicated talk-show hosts, just about all of which are not Catholic: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity (Hannity is Catholic). I heard the Protestant President Bush use the phrase repeatedly, as he often does.

As they all quoted John Paul II, he was unable to verbalize those words himself. No problem: The world spoke his words for him, with similar heartfelt conviction.

As Schiavo began to enter the point of no return, around March 30, the result of the removal of a feeding tube, John Paul II, affirming his dedication to life, had a feeding tube inserted. He reached the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast day created when he canonized a little known, uneducated Polish nun in 2000. By barely outliving Terri Schiavo, he lived long enough to provide us with a stark contrast, and to remind us of the value of life.

The battle against atheistic Soviet Communism was the battle of the last century, commencing in 1917 and finishing in 1991. The moral battle of the next century will be the fight for the dignity of human life. John Paul II helped us win the last, and has left us words of wisdom, a coherent philosophy, and an example, to guide us in our new fight.

In that way, then, the death of Pope John Paul II is a significant symbol, and a bridge — a bridge from one century to another.

To the questions recently asked: Why is the pope hanging on? Why doesn’t he step down? John Paul II provided an answer just before Easter Sunday: He said he offered his suffering and continued life so that God’s divine design could continue to be carried out, just a bit longer. His faith or some kind of divine intuition told him that his work wasn’t done. Apparently, there were a few more things that needed to happen, ends that needed to be tied. It seems he might have been onto something.

Now, Pope John Paul II’s work on this earth is finished, as he enters the ultimate Culture of Life.


Paul Kengor. "The 20th Century Ends." National Review (April 4, 2005).

Reprinted with permission of the author and National Review.


Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution. He is the author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2006), God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life, and the best selling God and Ronald Reagan. He is co-editor, along with Peter Schweizer, of Assessing the Reagan Presidency (Rowman-Littlefield, 2005). Paul Kengor is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Contact Kengor at

Copyright © 2005 Paul Kengor

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