If you follow U.S. politics, then you know who Newt Gingrich is.
He was a member of the House of Representatives for 20 years, including 4 years as Speaker of the House. He also ran an unsuccessful campaign to be the Republican nominee for President in 2012. He’s definitely a controversial and polarizing figure: depending on your politics, you may love him or hate him.
But what many people don’t know is that he converted to Catholicism in 2009 – and that he was inspired to do so by Pope Benedict XVI.
Gingrich was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1943 to a Lutheran family. He practiced the Lutheran faith until graduate school when he became Southern Baptist. He remained Baptist for most his life and political career.
Unfortunately, he’s had a checkered life. While he enjoyed great political success, he was charged with various ethics violations as Speaker of the House, and officially reprimanded by his fellow representatives for one of them. And he’s been married three times and divorced twice, both times due to him having an affair (with the woman who would become his next wife).
His third and current wife is Callista Bisek, who is Catholic (how was their marriage approved by the Church is not clear). They got married in 2000.
Callista was not only a diligent weekly Mass attender, but was (and still is) in the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.. Even though he was Southern Baptist, he later explained in an article recounting his conversion, he went to the beautiful basilica every Sunday to see his wife sing.
In 2005, Callista’s choir traveled to Rome to sing in St. Peter’s Basilica, and Gingrich tagged along. In addition to being inspired by the beauty of St. Peter’s, he developed a friendship with the D.C. basilica’s rector, Msgr. Walter Rossi. Their conversations about history and the faith, Gingrich later wrote, “were enlightening and intriguing.”
Around this time he read a few George Weigel books, and even read Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth. The latter was particularly impactful and moving for him.
He was also struck by the great universality of the faith. Whenever he and his wife traveled somewhere, she was always adamant to go to Mass on Sunday. “Listening to ‘Amazing Grace’ being sung in Chinese at Mass in Beijing,” Gingrich wrote, “was a beautiful experience, and worshipping with believers across the world opened my eyes to the diversity and richness of the Catholic Church.”
But the definitive turning point came in 2008 when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States. Gingrich explains:
“Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States in April of 2008 was a turning point for me. The Holy Father presided over solemn vespers with the U.S. bishops in the Crypt Church at the basilica in Washington. Callista’s choir was asked to sing for Pope Benedict at vespers, and as a spouse, I had the unique opportunity to attend the papal visit and was deeply moved by the occasion.
“Catching a glimpse of Pope Benedict that day, I was struck by the happiness and peacefulness he exuded. The joyful and radiating presence of the Holy Father was a moment of confirmation about the many things I had been thinking and experiencing for several years.”
Wow! Though many associate that type of thing more with Pope Francis today, don’t forget that Pope Benedict XVI also was and is a holy man!
And that was it. Right then and there he knew he wanted to join the Catholic Church. And he couldn’t wait to start the process: he contacted Msgr. Rossi that evening to tell him.
After a year of instruction in the Catechism, he was finally received into full communion on March 29th, 2009.