WASHINGTON (BP)–Ronald Reagan’s faith formed the core of his beliefs and enabled him to confront death twice with courage, friends and family members said during funeral services for the former president June 11.
“When he closed his eyes, that’s when I realized the gift that he gave to me — the gift that he was going to be with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Reagan’s son, Michael Reagan, said during funeral services at the presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Reagan’s son recounted that on a flight from Washington to California in 1988, his father told him “about his love of God, his love of Christ as his Savior.”
“I did not know then what it all meant, but I certainly, certainly know now,” Michael Reagan said. “I can’t think of a better gift for a father to give a son, and I hope to honor my father by giving my son Cameron and my daughter Ashley that very same gift he gave to me.”
A professing Christian, Michael Reagan said that when he dies, he and his father and his sister Maureen — who died in 2001 of melanoma — would “dance” together.
“Dad, when I go, I will go to heaven, too,” he said. “And you and I and my sister Maureen that went before us, we will dance with the heavenly host of angels before the presence of God. We will do it melanoma- and Alzheimer’s-free.”
Michael Wenning, retired pastor at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in California, served as the Reagans’ minister and spoke at the service.
“I believe that last Saturday [June 5], he began a new journey into the glorious presence of Almighty God, and he is basking in the sunshine of His love,” Wenning said. “And I believe he is touching the face of God — as he said during the Challenger disaster. And the Lord is saying to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.'”
The service in California capped a day of memorials to Reagan, the nation’s 40th president who died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. In Washington earlier in the day, President Bush said that faith enabled Reagan to confront death twice “with courage and grace.”
Delivering the eulogy, Bush recalled how Reagan responded to the assassination attempt on his life shortly after he took office in 1981 and to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in 1994. “In both these trials, he showed how a man so enchanted by life can be at peace with life’s end,” Bush said.
“And where does that strength come from? Where is that courage learned?” Bush asked. “It is the faith of a boy who read the Bible with his mom. It is the faith of a man lying in an operating room who prayed for the one who shot him before he prayed for himself. It is the faith of a man with a fearful illness who waited on the Lord to call him home.
“In his last years, he saw through a glass darkly. Now he sees his Savior face to face.”
Former presidents, former world leaders, current foreign dignitaries and members of Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as aides from the Reagan White House, joined former first lady Nancy Reagan and the Reagan family in filling the National Cathedral for the service for the president who served for eight years in the 1980s. Reagan died June 5 at his southern California home.
After he survived the assassination attempt, Reagan said he was giving the rest of his life to God, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recalled in her tribute at the service.
“Ronnie himself certainly believed that he had been given back his life for a purpose,” said Thatcher, a close ally of Reagan. “And surely it is hard to deny that Ronald Reagan’s life was providential when we look at what he achieved in the eight years that followed.”
The tributes frequently included references to his opposition to Soviet communism and his role in helping bringing an end to what he called the “evil empire.”
Reagan “believed in the power of truth in the conduct of world affairs,” Bush said. “When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name. There were no doubters in the prisons and gulags, where dissidents spread the news, tapping to each other in code what the American president had dared to say. There were no doubters in the shipyards and churches and secret labor meetings, where brave men and women began to hear the creaking and rumbling of a collapsing empire. And there were no doubters among those who swung hammers at the hated wall as the first and hardest blow had been struck by President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan “sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world and to free the slaves of communism,” said Thatcher, who was in attendance but spoke in a video made months ago because of health problems.
“Ronald Reagan knew his own mind. He had firm principles and, I believe, right ones. He expounded them clearly. He acted upon them decisively.
“With the lever of American patriotism, he lifted up the world,” she said. “And so today the world — in Prague, in Budapest, in Warsaw, in Sofia, in Bucharest, in Kiev and in Moscow itself — the world mourns the passing of the Great Liberator and echoes his prayer, ‘God bless America.'”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader during the last years of Reagan’s presidency, sat next to Thatcher in the cathedral.
Those who spoke at the service appeared to maintain their composure except for former President Bush.
“As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan,” the elder Bush said before pausing to collect himself, “than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life. I learned kindness; we all did. I also learned courage; the nation did. And I learned decency; the whole world did. And perhaps as important as anything, I learned a lot about humor, a lot about laughter.”
He “never made an adversary into an enemy. He was never mean-spirited,” Bush said.
After Washington Roman Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrick read Matthew 5:14-16, former U.S. Senator John Danforth used the text for his message.
“You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hid,” said Danforth, quoting the first verse in the passage. “It was his favorite theme from his first inaugural address to his final address from the oval office. For him, America was the shining city on a hill.”
Reagan’s reference to America as a “shining city on a hill” found its source in a 1630 sermon by Puritan John Winthrop.
“The Winthrop message became the Reagan message,” said Danforth, an ordained Episcopal minister. “It rang of optimism, and we longed to hear it, especially after the dark years of Vietnam and Watergate. It was a vision with policy implications. America could not hide its light under a bushel. It could not turn in on itself and hunker down. Isolationism was not an option; neither was protectionism. We must champion freedom everywhere. We must be the beacon for the world.”
The speakers all spoke of the love demonstrated in the more than 50 years of the Reagans’ marriage.
“He was not consumed by himself,” said Danforth, recently nominated by Bush to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “He didn’t need to be president to be a complete person. The only thing he really needed was to be with his wife. Mrs. Reagan, you shared him with us, and for that we will always be grateful.”
Early in the service, Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court, read from Winthrop’s sermon. Jewish rabbi and author Harold Kushner read Isaiah 40:28-31.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney also gave a tribute.
In addition to music by the National Cathedral choir, a military chorus and a Marine orchestra, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang “Amazing Grace.”
The service followed a week of ceremonies in memory of Reagan, whose pro-life and pro-family policies, as well as his opposition to communism, made him especially popular with evangelical Christians. More than 100,000 people were estimated to have waited up to four hours or more to pay their respects while Reagan’s body rested in state in a flag-draped casket in the Capitol rotunda from Wednesday night to Friday morning.