At Large

From the Ranch to the Vatican

A ride with Ronald Reagan and his first ambassador to the Holy See, Bill Wilson.

By 1.12.12

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If you ever find yourself in Ronald Reagan's bathroom, you may notice something peculiar about it. There's nothing all that unusual about the facilities themselves. It's a plain old bathroom. But one decoration stands out.

Hanging on the wall above a towel rack is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ child. I suppose a bathroom wall isn't a typical place to hang such an icon, but it is rather curious that it would be hanging in a so-called Protestant bathroom (not that I have any clue what a "Protestant bathroom" ought to look like).

The icon was a gift from the Reagans' longtime friends William and Betty Wilson. Bill, himself a convert to Roman Catholicism, presented the icon to President Reagan while serving as the country's first Ambassador to the Holy See. On this week's 28th anniversary of his nomination to the post, it might be suitable to commemorate the late Ambassador's enduring relationship with our 40th President.

Ronald met his friend Bill through Nancy, who was a close friend of Bill's wife, Betty. From dinner parties to buying houses, the couples did nearly everything together. The latter activity helped change the world.

Edmund Morris, Reagan's official, controversial biographer had this to say about his subject in Dutch: "Go to the Ranch. That's where you'll find his soul."

Rancho del Cielo, as Reagan would never hesitate to say, was found by Bill Wilson. The Wilsons had lived on an avocado ranch just down the mountainside north of Santa Barbara, California, and knew that Ronald would fall in love with the property.

Indeed he did. Reagan would often refer to it as his "open Cathedral." It was where he retreated from the Washington gridlock and where he gathered his strength. It represented his vision of America: its vastness, fertility, potential, and life.

Wilson was Reagan's ranch sidekick. They both found solace in riding the boundless horse trails. It was a deeply personal and spiritual activity the two men did together. One that seemed to steel their backbones in the war against the Evil Empire. Without the Ranch, Reagan's son Michael once said, "the [Berlin] Wall still stands."

And without Bill Wilson, the United States would still be stuck in 1867, the year Congress repealed funds for diplomatic relations with the Vatican. That didn't stop Reagan from appointing his friend Bill as a Personal Representative of the President to the Holy See in February of 1981. He even complained in his diary that the State Department was too slow in processing the appointment and suggested that someone ought to "get off his ass" and get this done.

Reagan then maneuvered his way through a Democratic Congress to establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See and elevated Wilson to Ambassador.

Reagan was anxious to meet the newly elected Pope John Paul II and wanted Wilson to help develop a historical relationship. In June of 1982, Reagan and the Pope sat alone in the Vatican Library for almost an hour discussing their "divine mission." Reagan said to the Pope of their surviving assassination attempts: "Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened."

As Paul Kengor explains in his spiritual biography God and Ronald Reagan, "Reagan and the Pope translated their divine mission into a practical mission to maintain Solidarity." A close Cardinal to the Pope admitted that "the Holy Father and the President committed themselves and the institutions of the church and America to such a goal." Reagan and Wilson sought, and received, the Vatican's invaluable participation in assigning the Soviet Union to the ash heap of history.

Even though Wilson resigned from his post in 1986 amid some controversy, he remained close to his old friend. As compiled in Reagan: A Life in Letters, Wilson wrote Reagan in February of 1987 to tell of a troubling meeting he had with William Cardinal Baum. The Cardinal expressed concern that Europe is "beginning to experience a spiritual fatigue leading to a moral fatigue."

Reagan wrote back agreeing that secularism "is so prevalent today," especially in public education. He concluded by reminding his friend that churches that "stick closely to the Bible are showing an increase in followers. Maybe there is a clue there for all of us" -- Catholic and Protestant alike.

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About the Author

Nicholas G. Hahn III is editor of RealClearReligion.org. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.