It was June 6, 1987. Ronald Reagan was on his way to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II. Their first meeting at the Vatican had taken place five years earlier, June 7, 1982, whereupon the two men shared their mutual convictions that they believed God had spared their lives from assassination attempts the previous year for a special purpose—to defeat atheistic Soviet communism. For John Paul II, that near-death experience had occurred on May 13, 1981, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima, whose intercession he credited with saving his life.
Now, on June 6, 1987, Ronald Reagan, en route to seeing the Holy Father again, was hearing all about Fatima. He heard it from Frank Shakespeare, his ambassador to the Vatican.
That moment most assuredly wasn’t captured by journalists. I learned about it only a few years ago when Shakespeare’s words via cell phone one afternoon compelled me to pull off the highway to start writing notes as quickly as I could muster. As for the 87-year-old former ambassador, he likewise was surprised by the focus of our conversation. He wasn’t accustomed to historians calling him to ask about Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Fatima. I figured, however, that Shakespeare, having the distinctly unusual background of having first served as ambassador to Portugal prior to the Vatican, might uniquely be able to answer my unusual questions. He didn’t disappoint.
After a stunned pause, Shakespeare told me “how it [Fatima] would have come up and did come up” between Reagan and John Paul II:
First off, they felt the need to counsel each very frequently. As the head of the world’s leading spiritual power, and the head of the world’s leading temporal power, both of them fairly new to the job, and with John Paul II being the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years, they felt a need for one another’s counsel.
Now, at some point, the pope would have said to Reagan: “For anyone to talk to me in depth about foreign policy, about Russia, about the Cold War, they will need to understand my thinking and relationship to Mary and also Mary’s appearance at Fatima and the whole relationship between Mary and Russia and the Cold War.” In turn, Ronald Reagan most certainly would have then said, “Well, what do you mean by Mary and Fatima?” And the pope would have said, “Well, over 60 years ago, Mary appeared to three small children in the village of Fatima, in Portugal….” He would have explained. Then he would have said: “So, if someone is going to talk to me about foreign policy, Mr. President, you will need to understand that. You will need to understand this and how it relates to my foreign policy.”
Reagan surely would have said, “Okay, explain Fatima to me….”
It’s interesting that Shakespeare’s preface was similar to mine in my book on John Paul II and Ronald Reagan: I begin that book with two dates of Fatima—May 13, 1981 and then (going backward) May 13, 1917. I preface that dramatic opening by warning non-Catholics that if they want to understand John Paul II and much of his and Reagan’s unique extraordinary story of the twentieth century, they need to first understand how Mary and Fatima relate to the picture, regardless of whether they are Catholic. Ronald Reagan himself, as Shakespeare told me, would have needed that understanding.
I then said to Shakespeare: “Now, you can’t say for sure where and when and whether they [Reagan and John Paul II] had that conversation, but you believe it had to have happened at some point?” Shakespeare answered: “Yes, that’s exactly right.” He added: “Very clearly, the pope would have said to Reagan that there can’t be someone between us who can speak to us on Russia and foreign policy without understanding Mary and Fatima.”
That “someone between them” turned out to be Frank Shakespeare.
And thus, Shakespeare briefed President Reagan on Fatima during Reagan’s June 1987 trip to Italy. Here was the context: Reagan was in northern Italy for a G-7 meeting with heads of state. He hoped to fly to Rome to meet with John Paul II—with whom he always sought to meet anytime he could. Shakespeare was with Reagan that entire time to Rome, one-on-one, on the plane (hour-and-a-half flight) and in the car. They spent several hours together. He was with Reagan to and from the president’s meeting with the pontiff at a private villa in the Vatican Gardens.
That Reagan-John Paul II meeting itself was very meaningful, but we’ll stick here to Shakespeare and Reagan and Fatima. Shakespeare told me: “I talked to Reagan about Fatima on this trip, in the plane and the car. And he listened very, very carefully—very intently. He was very interested.”
To be sure, this wasn’t the first time that Reagan had heard about Fatima. I document other instances. Here, in this article, however, I will share just one especially illuminating example that has been completely missed by historians.
This date was May 9, 1985, and Reagan was giving a speech in Portugal to the nation’s assembly.
The writer was Reagan’s chief speechwriter, Tony Dolan, a devout Roman Catholic with a passion for Mary, for Fatima, and for Marian apparitions. Dolan knew all about Fatima. And he confirmed for me that Reagan knew about it also.
“He knew what Fatima was,” Dolan told me. “Fatima was long a part of the anti-communist movement. The Fatima movement was something he would’ve known about. And he had this strong mystical side as well.”
Reagan indeed had a strong mystical side, which included a high regard for the mother of Jesus Christ. Plus, Reagan had had a Catholic father and had a devoutly Catholic brother and sister-in-law, both of them daily communicants and virulent anti-communists well aware of Our Lady of Fatima. Reagan was surrounded by such Catholics even on his own staff—from the likes of Bill Casey to Bill Clark. If all of that wasn’t enough, Reagan would’ve heard about Fatima even in Hollywood, when a major film on the apparitions was done while he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Either way, public proof of Reagan’s knowledge of Fatima became unmistakably evident in this May 1985 speech, with a striking statement that left the Portuguese members of the parliament momentarily shocked as they listened to the translation of the president’s words. The passage came amid the American president’s thoughts on John Paul II. He stated:
Human beings are not just another part of the material universe, not just mere bundles of atoms. We believe in another dimension—a spiritual side to man. We find a transcendent source for our claims to human freedom, our suggestion that inalienable rights come from one greater than ourselves.
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.
For the first and final time (publicly, that is) of his presidency, Reagan had mentioned Mary and the children of Fatima. In a powerful statement that deserves pause for reflection, the president of the United States said that in the prayers of those children of Fatima there resided “more power” than in all the world’s great armies and statesmen. He knew of John Paul II’s remarkable visit to Fatima after recovering from Ali Agca’s bullet, whereupon the Holy Father placed the bullet in the crown of the statue of the Lady. He knew of the pontiff’s visit to that “great religious shrine,” where he fulfilled “his special devotion to Mary.”
As President Reagan uttered the word “Fatima” to the chamber, a pause followed as the astonished deputies awaited their translation for confirmation of what they thought they might have just heard. When the corresponding words came through in their language, vigorous clapping ensued. This was not what they had expected from a head of state addressing them in formal session, and especially from an American Protestant president.
As for Reagan, saying what he said no doubt gave him joy. He relished these daring moments, when such a controversial but poignant statement of truth left his lips. “I knew he would love it and use it,” Dolan said of the line he inserted for his boss. “Just knew. Very, very daring.”
How did the media miss this at the time? Well, for one, this was a 10-day trip through Europe by Reagan, where the Bitburg controversy ensued. That was pretty much the only thing the media cared about. And the very few sources that did note Reagan’s Portugal speech—such as the New York Times (albeit barely)—made no mention whatsoever of the Fatima reference. The liberal media could not give a rip about some silly stuff about visions of Mary by three overly pious shepherd kids.
There’s much more to this story, and to illuminating Reagan’s interest in Fatima—again, too much to cover here.
But for Catholics, amid the centenary of Mary’s first appearance in Fatima, it will be very intriguing to learn that not only were the likes of their faithful pontiff John Paul II obviously interested in Fatima, but so was the pope’s vital Cold War partner, Ronald Reagan. And it was the two of them who joined together in the 1980s to wage battle against the beast—against the very communist threat that the Lady of Fatima had warned the world about in 1917. They, too, wanted to crush the head of that serpent. And ultimately, they prevailed.
Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of many books including The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage (2015). His new book, A Pope and a President (April, 2017), explores the extraordinary relationship between Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and their joint effort to defeat Soviet communism.