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Near the start of his weekly general audience in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II is shot and seriously wounded while passing through the square in an open car. The assailant, 23-year-old escaped Turkish murderer Mehmet Ali Agca, fired four shots, one of which hit the pontiff in the abdomen, narrowly missing vital organs, and another that hit the pope’s left hand. A third bullet struck 60-year-old American Ann Odre in the chest, seriously wounding her, and the fourth hit 21-year-old Jamaican Rose Hill in the arm. Agca’s weapon was knocked out of his hand by bystanders, and he was detained until his arrest by police. The pope was rushed by ambulance to Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, where he underwent more than five hours of surgery and was listed in critical but stable condition.
John Paul II, once the spiritual leader of almost 600 million Roman Catholics around the world, was invested in 1978 as the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 456 years. Fluent in seven modern languages and Latin, he was known as an avid traveler who had little fear of going out in public. Four days after being shot, he offered forgiveness to his would-be assassin from his hospital bed. The pontiff spent three weeks in the hospital before being released fully recovered from his wounds.
The motives of Mehmet Ali Agca in attempting to kill the head of the Roman Catholic Church were enigmatic, and remain so today. In the 1970s, Agca joined a right-wing Turkish terrorist group known as the Gray Wolves. The group is held responsible for the assassination of hundreds of public officials, labor organizers, journalists, and left-wing activists as part of their mission to cleanse Turkey of leftist influence. In recent years, it has been revealed that the Gray Wolves had close ties with far-right politicians, intelligence officers, and police commanders. In February 1979, Abdi Ipekci, a liberal newspaper editor, was murdered near his home in Istanbul. Mehmet Ali Agca was arrested and charged with the crime. While awaiting his trial, Agca escaped from a military prison in November 1979.
In his cell, he left behind a letter that concerned John Paul II’s planned trip to Turkey. The letter read: “Western imperialists who are afraid of Turkey’s unity of political, military, and economic power with the brotherly Islamic countries are sending the Crusader Commander John Paul under the mask of a religions leader. If this ill-timed and meaningless visit is not called off, I will definitely shoot the pope. This is the only reason that I escaped from prison.” Because of this threat, security was tightened during the pope’s Turkish visit, and there was no assassination attempt. A Turkish court convicted Agca of murder in absentia, and he remained at large.
On May 9, 1981, Agca took a plane from Majorca to Milan and entered Italy under an assumed name. He took a room in a hotel near the Vatican and on May 13 walked into St. Peter’s Square and shot the pope with a 9mm Browning automatic. A handwritten note was found in his pocket that read: “I am killing the pope as a protest against the imperialism of the Soviet Union and the United States and against the genocide that is being carried out in Salvador and Afghanistan.” He pleaded guilty, saying he acted alone, and in July 1981 was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1982, Agca announced that his assassination attempt was actually part of a conspiracy involving the Bulgarian intelligence services, which was known to act on behalf of the KGB. Pope John Paul II was a fervent anti-communist who supported the Solidarity trade union in his native Poland, which seemed to make him an appropriate target for the communists. In 1983, despite these developments, the pope met with Mehmet in prison and offered him forgiveness. Further interrogations of Agca led to the arrest of three Bulgarians and three Turks, who went on trial in 1985.
As the trial opened, the case against the Bulgarian and Turkish defendants collapsed when Agca, the state’s key witness, described himself as Jesus Christ and predicted the imminent end of the world. He explained that the Bulgarian scenario was concocted by Western intelligence officials, and that God had in fact led him to shoot John Paul II. The attack, he explained, was “tied to the Third Secret of the Madonna of Fatima.” The secrets of Fatima were three messages that Catholic tradition says the Virgin Mary imparted to three Portuguese shepherd children in an apparition in 1917. The first message allegedly predicted World War II, the second the rise (and fall) of the Soviet Union, and the third was still a Vatican secret in 1985. In 1986, the Bulgarian and Turkish defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence.
In the late 1990s, Pope John Paul II expressed his hope that the Italian government would pardon Mehmet in 2000. The pontiff had made 2000 a holy “Jubilee” year, of which forgiveness was to be a cornerstone. On May 13, 2000, the 19th anniversary of the attempt on his life, the pope visited Fatima, Portugal. The same day, the Third Secret of Fatima was announced by Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano. Sodano described the secret as a “prophetic vision” in which “a bishop clothed in white…falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire.” The Vatican interpreted this as a prediction of the attempt on John Paul II’s life. Mehmet Ali Agca, who had guessed the alleged Fatima-assassination connection in 1985, was pardoned by Italian President Carolo Ciampi on June 14, 2000. Extradited to Turkey, he began serving the eight years remaining on the sentence for his 1979 murder of the Turkish newspaper editor.
In February 2005, Pope John Paul II was hospitalized with complications from the flu. He died two months later, on April 2, 2005, at his home in the Vatican. Six days later two million people packed Vatican City for his funeral—said to be the biggest funeral in history. Although it was not confirmed by the Vatican until 2003, many believe Pope John Paul II began suffering from Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s. He began to develop slurred speech and had difficulty walking, though he continued to keep up a physically demanding travel schedule. In his final years, he was forced to delegate many of his official duties, but still found the strength to speak to the faithful from a window at the Vatican.
Pope John Paul II is remembered for his successful efforts to end communism, as well as for building bridges with peoples of other faiths, and issuing the Catholic Church’s first apology for its actions during World War II. He was succeeded by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. Pope John Paul II was canonized in 2014.
The Saint and the Lady Who Saved Him: John Paul II and Fatima
In 1982, the Marian shrine that St. John Paul II wanted to visit was the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the Queen of Poland. Instead, he went to Fatima.
Being saved from death linked him more with Fatima than his Polish birth linked him with Czestochowa. In 1982, the shrine of the Black Madonna was marking its 600th anniversary. St. John Paul II dearly wanted to be present, but his 1979 visit to Poland for the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaus had so destabilized the communist regime that they would not permit the Holy Father to visit for an even more significant anniversary. (The visit would eventually be permitted in 1983.)
Growing up in Poland, Karol Wojtyla was aware of the Fatima apparitions and knew about their anti-communist dimension, as Our Lady spoke about the “conversion of Russia.” Yet it did not figure prominently in his piety.
“The Holy Father wasn’t especially interested in these apparitions until the assassination attempt on his life in 1981,” his longtime personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, told the Register. “The Fatima devotion was present in the Krakow Archdiocese, and he supported it, but they [the apparitions] weren’t a priority in his ministry. Fatima became very close to him on May 13, 1981, when he realized the significance of these apparitions, which he then started to link to the attempt on his life, when he realized that it took place on the anniversary of the first apparitions. He was so close to death that he was convinced that the Holy Mother had saved his life.”
St. John Paul II visited Fatima three times — on the first anniversary of the assassination attempt, May 13, 1982 on the 10th anniversary, May 13, 1991 and finally during the Great Jubilee of 2000, when he beatified the child visionaries, Jacinta and Francisco, on May 13. (They will be canonized by Pope Francis this May 13 in Fatima.)
The final Fatima visit was most significant for John Paul. During the Great Jubilee, to accommodate all the special events in Rome, the Holy Father did not schedule any foreign trips, save for a great biblical pilgrimage, first to Egypt and then to the Holy Land. The only other trip was to Fatima, an indication that what happened there was decisive for understanding the history of our time.
At the end of the beatification Mass, it was announced that the “Third Secret” of Fatima would be revealed, which spoke of a “bishop in white” being killed upon a great mountain of martyrs. St. John Paul II interpreted the secret as referring to his assassination attempt of 1981, at which point Our Lady intervened to prevent his killing.
A patriotic Pole, Wojtyla read history in a Providential way, from the improbable survival of the Czestochowa shrine against Swedish invaders in 1655 to the “Miracle of the Vistula” in 1920, when a newly independent Poland defeated the Soviet Red Army.
“It is impossible to understand the history of Poland, from Stanislaus in Skalka to Maximilian Kolbe in Oswiecim, if one does not apply to them, also, that unique and fundamental criterion which bears the name of Jesus Christ,” preached St. John Paul II on that epic first visit to Poland in 1979.
After the 1981 shooting, the Holy Father began to read the history of the 20th century through the lens of Fatima. The apparitions there were unusually historical, emphasizing the maternal dimension of Providence in history.
The Blessed Mother spoke to the shepherd children about world events of which they had no understanding — the Great War then raging, the rise of communism in Russia, the coming Second World War and the eventual triumph of her Immaculate Heart over communism.
On the same day as Mary first appeared at Fatima — May 13, 1917 — Eugenio Pacelli was consecrated a bishop in the Sistine Chapel. He would become Pope Pius XII and consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart, as Mary asked at Fatima. After seeing that his own survival was linked to the mystery of Fatima, St. John Paul II took up that same cause and formally consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25, 1984. Sister Lucia, the surviving Fatima visionary, confirmed that the consecration fulfilled the request of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917.
History accelerated. Within a year of the consecration, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, and within five years of that, communism had been vanquished by free elections in Poland, and the Berlin Wall was breached.
St. John Paul II always resisted the more apocalyptic — even superstitious — elements associated with devotion to Fatima. So his decision to insert the mystery of Fatima directly into the Great Jubilee — similar to what he did when he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska and instituted Divine Mercy Sunday also in the year 2000 — reflected his conclusion that the history of our times could not be read in its full Providential depth without reference to Fatima.
Devotion to Divine Mercy and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary are the Church’s fundamental response to the 20th century, the slaughterhouse of history.
“I seemed to recognize in the coincidence of the dates a special call to come to this place,” St. John Paul II said during his Fatima pilgrimage in 1982. “And so, today, I am here. I have come in order to thank Divine Providence in this place which the Mother of God seems to have chosen in a particular way. … The mystery of the spiritual motherhood of Mary has been actualized boundlessly in history. The Lady of the message [of Fatima] seems to have read with special insight the ‘signs of the times,’ the signs of our time.”
One of the most quoted lines of St. John Paul II is that “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” He said it at Fatima in 1982, convinced that to really understand what happened the year previous in the shooting, the message of Fatima had to be fully appreciated. History is not made only in places like Washington and Moscow, or at conferences of great powers like at Yalta.
God, too, writes in history, in obscure places like Nazareth and Fatima — places where the Mother of God listens to the Word of God and makes him visible in history.
Father Raymond J. de Souza Father Raymond J. de Souza is the founding editor of Convivium magazine.
38 Years Ago Today, Pope St. John Paul II Was Shot
Do you remember where you were on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981?
Bodyguards hold Pope John Paul II after he was shot May 13, 1981, in Saint Peter's Square. (photo: Getty Images)
May 13, a remarkable day in history.
Today, we mark the anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady at Fatima on May 13, 1917, to the three small shepherd children, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta.
Also, it was 38 years ago today that John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square.
Where Were You 38 Years Ago?
Do you know where you were 38 years ago today, May 13, 1981?
Well, let me tell you about that day, one I'll never forget — a day the world, the Church, will never forget. A day the world stood still.
I was on my way to St. Peter's Square for the 5 p.m. general audience at which Pope John Paul had just begun to preside. The weather had been very warm and the Vatican had moved the audiences from the hot noonday sun to a later time in the afternoon.
As I walked toward the square after having coffee in a small coffee bar nearby, I saw a group of Italian students, perhaps 30 of them, perhaps 10 years old, walking away from St. Peter’s Square with their teachers. They were not running so there was no reason to worry and I didn’t give them a second thought, except to wonder why they were leaving the papal audience instead of attending it.
And then I heard a scream! A voice shouted in Italian, “they've shot the Pope.” My mind could not process those words together. My feet seemed nailed to the sidewalk, I was momentarily paralyzed — it may have been five seconds or less but I couldn't move! When I finally absorbed the shock, I ran toward St. Peter’s Square where people were not quietly listening to what should have been a papal catechesis, rather they were going in all directions, asking each other what they heard, asking each other what they had seen. There were a lot of tears — so many people holding their heads, shaking their heads in disbelief, but always the tears.
My mind still could not conceive the words, “they’ve shot the Pope.” It was unbelievable, unimaginable. Who in their right mind would want to shoot a man of such magnificent spirituality, such great teaching, such wisdom and humanity and humor — a man whose entire life was a life of prayer, of service, of dedication, of singular love for his Church love for his people, for all people?
Where was that life now – 5:30 in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 13? Had it ended? Was it hanging in the balance? Was it possible to go from joy to sorrow in only a nanosecond?
As I was running toward the square to see what had happened, one of the more amazing things happened.
I had entered St. Peter’s Square and, walking around, had asked in as many languages as I knew what people had heard and what they had seen. At a certain point, a very tall American priest, with an obviously worried expression on his face, came up and asked me if I knew the whereabouts of the two women in his pilgrimage group who had been shot along with Pope John Paul.
Naturally, I was absolutely floored and asked him their names and if he thought they had been taken to a hospital. To this day, 38 years later, I remember those names: Ann Odre was a senior citizen in Father’s group and Rose Hall was the wife of a military man who had just come from — or was perhaps going to — Germany to see him. I made inquiries and found that both women had been taken to the nearby Santo Spirito hospital where, a day or two later, I visited Ann Odre.
Obviously the confusion in the square surpassed understanding. And, in a way, the relative silence surpassed understanding. There was probably more silence than there should have been with a crowd of that size but people were praying, people were not talking, so many were struck dumb by the idea someone would want to shoot a pope.
John Paul of course became the focus of everyone's attention: the faithful in the square, the people of Rome whose bishop had just been shot and, thanks to the media, people around the world. As a member of the media, I ran back to the press office to tell my colleagues what I had learned. I worked for a weekly newspaper in Rome at the time — the International Daily American — and also wrote a weekly column for the National Catholic Register as the Rome bureau chief. Working for a weekly it was tough to have a scoop but what I had discovered in the square, especially the information about the two American women, had to be shared with all of my fellow journalists.
For hours we were on the phone. We all called our contacts to ask who might have been in the square, what they saw, what they heard. Bit by bit, information was pieced together. We learned that a man with a gun had raised it, pointed it at the pope and fired shots, and was immediately wrestled to the ground by a nun. The man, we later discovered, was a Turkish citizen named Ali Agca, who was immediately taken into custody.
No one even thought of leaving the press office. Throughout the evening, and into the first hours of the new day, we all had our eyes on the TVs in the press office. There was nothing at that time like today’s social media – no internet, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and videos made with cell phones — no cell phones at that time, either — so we relied on our landline phones and Italian television.
It was an amazing evening. The hours dragged on, restaurants closed, and yet no one had had dinner. At best, some colleagues went to a few coffee bars before they closed to get a sandwich and some coffee for what we knew would be a long night. We all knew that no matter what we were writing, the final storyline could not be written until we heard from the Gemelli hospital whether the pope had survived his surgery, or if indeed a final line had been written in the life of Pope John Paul.
Given God's great love (and surely his Mother Mary’s love as well) for this special man, and given Pope John Paul's belief in Divine Mercy and his unshakeable belief in Divine Providence, we all received the gift of a pope who survived, and a long papacy following this potentially fatal day.
I got to bed in the wee small hours of the morning after dictating my story on the phone to the Register, based at the time in Los Angeles. I was exhausted when I went to bed and slept only a few hours because all of us were anxious to return to work the next morning and find out what had happened to the pope overnight.
You all know the rest of the story: Pope John Paul survived, had a long recovery period and eventually had other surgeries: There would be another 24 years of a fruitful pontificate by a traveling pope — a pope who wrote documents and poetry, a pope who influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
As I write these words 38 years later, that pope is now Saint John Paul II.
Now, do you remember where you were 38 years ago today, May 13, 1981 — the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the gentle lady whose loving hand, as John Paul said, deflected the bullet that could have killed him?
I met the Holy Father many times over the years and have a album of photos and a bigger album of memories.
Joan Lewis is based in Rome. She blogs for EWTN at Joan’s Rome.
Guest Writers Inquiries and comments regarding Guest Bloggers should be directed to the Register's Blog Editor, Kevin Knight ([email protected]).
Pope John Paul II, Polish skier
With the passing of Karol Wojtyla, the sport has lost its most exalted devotee. A lifelong skier, the pontiff sneaked off to the hills as long as his health permitted. He was shot in 1981, which enforced a temporary layoff, and quit for good after the 1987 season, nine years into his papacy.
During his decades as Bishop and Cardinal of Krakow, beginning in 1962, Wojtyla spent two weeks each winter at Poland's largest resort, Zakopane (site of the 1937 FIS championships), lodging in a local convent. The sisters reportedly still have a pair of his leather ski boots.
In his youth, and into middle age, Wojtyla had a reputation as an earn-your-turns kind of guy. An indefatigable hiker and kayaker, he scorned lifts and preferred to climb on his hickory skis. In his 20s, he was an athlete, standing 5 feet 10.5 inches at 175 pounds, but suffered a number of injuries that caused him to stoop in later years.
When churchly duties cut into his recreation time, Wojtyla modernized, acquiring a pair of 195cm Head skis and taking his place in the lift line. He preferred to ski off-piste, and was quoted as saying "It's unbecoming for a cardinal to ski badly." He made his last runs at the Italian resort of Terminillo, a short commute from the Vatican.
Here follows a short piece from the March, 1979 issue of SKI.
A Pontiff whose non-papal piety runs to the mountains, Pope John Paul II's next ski descent has already been labelled the 'Schuss of the Fisherman.'
Vatican life has its protocol-and Vatican officials are not known to enjoy surprises. It was therefore with some astonishment that they greeted Pope John Paul II's pronouncement, just seconds after his inauguration as the 264th successor to St. Peter and Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, that "I will ski again when they let me."
The Polish Pope's comment to a well-wisher came as he descended into St. Peter's Square to meet his new people-and, so far as the for- mer Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was concerned, it was in earnest. The Pope, his energies now devoted to papal affairs of state, would be missing out on those winter vacations he had regularly taken in Poland's Tatra Mountains. There was, he supposed, some consolation-the Pope would at least be able to see the ski mountains of Terminillo, 20 miles to the north of Rome, from the windows of the papal apartments, the same mountains he had been known to slip away to for some skiing while attending Vatican conferences in Rome as a Cardinal.
Karol Wojtyla is a humble man who confesses his one luxury in life has been "a pair of Head skis." His ski socks are initialed "K.W.", embroidered not so much in priestly affectation as to insure his getting his socks back from the laundry.
The Pope, at 58, is an excellent skier-those who have skied with him call him the "Daredevil of the Tatras"-who has skied for most of his life but did not take up the sport seriously until age 30. His favorite ski haunt is Kasprowy Wierch in Poland, the peak above Zacapone where a wrong turn could send an inexperienced skier bodily over a sheer drop into Czechoslovakia. Hala Gasienicowa-called the Valley of the Caterpillar because of its zigzag terrain-is the Pope's favorite ski run.
Upon his arrival at the Vatican, Wojtyla told the Italian cardinals, "In Poland, 40 percent of the cardinals ski." When it was pointed out to him that Poland had only two cardinals, Wojtyla explained, "Cardinal Wyszynski accounts for 60 percent." He later expressed his love of skiing to a journalist by saying, "I wish I could be out there somewhere in the mountains, racing down into a valley. It's an extraordinary sensation."
The Game Is Afoot
His unique escape in December of 1979 occurred only a month after Agca had changed his tune on who murdered the journalist, Abdi Ipekci. Initially, Agca gave a full confession but later signaled otherwise, saying “I did not kill Ipekci, but I know who did.” The unusual circumstances of his escape prompted an important question: Who helped Mehmet Ali Agca? That, as they say, is where the plot thickens.
John Paul II: Servant of God, Hero of History
The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, USA, was officially opened on Thursday, 22 March, in the presence of seven Cardinals and U.S. President George W. Bush. During the ceremony President Bush gave the following address in English. Here is the text.
I'm pleased to join with all the Church leaders and special guests here today to dedicate the Cultural Center. It is my high honour to be here.
When Cardinal Wojtyla spoke here at Catholic University in 1976, few imagined the course his life would take, or the history his life would shape. In 1978 most of the world knew him only as the Polish Pope. There were signs of something different and deeper.
One journalist, after hearing the new Pope's first blessing in St Peter's Square, wired back to his editors: "This is not a Pope from Poland, this is a Pope from Galilee". From that day to this, the Pope's life has written one of the great inspiring stories of our time.
We remember the Pope's first visit to Poland in 1979 when faith turned into resistance and began the swift collapse of imperial communism. The gentle, young priest, once ordered into forced labour by Nazis, became the foe of tyranny and a witness to hope.
The last leader of the Soviet Union would call him "the highest moral authority on earth". We remember his visit to a prison, comforting the man who shot him. By answering violence with forgiveness, the Pope became a symbol of reconciliation.
We remember the Pope's visit to Manila in 1995, speaking to one of the largest crowds in history, more than 5 million men and women and children. We remember that as a priest 50 years ago, he traveled by horse-cart to teach the children of small villages. Now he's kissed the ground of 123 countries and leads a flock of1 billion into the third millennium.
We remember the Pope's visit to Israel and his mission of reconciliation and mutual respect between Christians and Jews. He is the first modern Pope to enter a synagogue or visit an Islamic country. He has always combined the practice of tolerance with a passion for truth.
John Paul himself has often said: "In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences". And maybe the reason this man became Pope is that he bears the message our world needs to hear. To the poor, sick and dying he carries a message of dignity and solidarity with their suffering. Even when they are forgotten by men, he reminds them they are never forgotten by God.
"Do not give in to despair", he said, "in the South Bronx. God has your lives, and his care goes with you, calls you to better things, calls you to overcome".
To the wealthy, this Pope carries the message that wealth alone is a false comfort. The goods of the world, he teaches, are nothing without goodness. We are called, each and every one of us, not only to make our own way, but to ease the path of others.
To those with power, the Pope carries a message of justice and human rights. And that message has caused dictators to fear and to fall. His is not the power of armies or technology or wealth. It is the unexpected power of a baby in a stable, of a man on a cross, of a simple fisherman who carried a message of hope to Rome.
Pope John Paul II brings that message of liberation to every corner of the world. When he arrived in Cuba in 1998, he was greeted by signs that read:"Fidel is the Revolution!". But as the Pope's biographer put it: "in the next four days Cuba belonged to another revolutionary". We are confident that the revolution of hope the Pope began in that nation will bear fruit in our time.
And we're responsible to stand for human dignity and religious freedom wherever they are denied, from Cuba to China to Southern Sudan. And we, in our country, must not ignore the words the Pope addresses to us. On his four pilgrimages to America, he has spoken with wisdom and feeling about our strengths and our flaws, our successes and our needs.
The Pope reminds us that while freedom defines our nation, responsibility must define our lives. He challenges us to live up to our aspirations, to be a fair and just society where all are welcomed, all are valued and all are protected. And he is never more eloquent than when he speaks for a culture of life. The culture of life is a welcoming culture, never excluding, never dividing never despairing and always affirming the goodness of life in all its seasons.
In the culture of life we must make room for the stranger.We must comfort the sick. We must care for the aged. We must welcome the immigrant, We must teach our children to be gentle with one another. We must defend in love the innocent child waiting to be born.
The Center we dedicate today celebrates the Pope's message, its comfort and its challenge. This place stands for the dignity of the human person, the value of every life and the splendour of truth. And, above all, it stands, in the Pope's words, for the "joy of faith in a troubled world".
I'm grateful that Pope John Paul II chose Washington as the site of this Center. It brings honour and it fills a need. We are thankful for the message. We are also thankful for the messenger, for his personal warmth and prophetic strength for his good humour and his bracing honesty for his spiritual and intellectual gifts for his moral courage, tested against tyranny and against our own complacency.
Always, the Pope points us to the things that last and the love that saves. We thank God for this rare man, a servant of God and a hero of history. And I thank all of you for building this Center of conscience and reflection in our nation's capital.
Weekly Edition in English
28 March 2001, page 6
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
Historian: John Paul II saw spiritual meaning behind assassination attempt
Vatican City, May 13, 2011 / 13:47 pm
On the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, historian Lucetta Scaraffia says that the late Pope believed the crime had a “profound meaning” in salvation history. He worked to shift attention towards this “transcendent reality” to find “the real reason for the event.”
Bl. John Paul II’s critical stance towards the devaluing of human life, materialism and hedonism in countries of Christian origin made him an “antagonistic figure” both of communist regimes and “misguided” modernizations in democratic countries, Scaraffia explained.
This made him “a dangerous adversary for many.”
“Wojtyla well knew who wanted him dead, just as he had always known he was in danger, but he was well aware that behind human decisions, there is always more than meets the eye and he wanted to shift the attention towards this transcendent reality to find the real reason for the event,” she said.
“There were multiple forces opposing his open battle to bring Christianity back to the center of attention, to re-open souls to the teaching of the Gospels, and one could not reduce the assassination attempt to a communist political plot or an anti-Christian operation of Islamic fundamentalism.”
Scaraffia, a teacher at La Sapienza University in Rome, made her comments in an editorial for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano 30 years after the assassination attempt.
On May 13, 1981 the Turkish-born Ali Agca fired several gunshots at John Paul II as he was proceeding among the crowds for an audience in St. Peter’s Square. The attack seriously wounded the pontiff.
Afterward, the Pope said the solution to the unsolved mystery of the assassination attempt was before everyone’s eyes.
“(T)he evident intervention of a miraculous nature which caused the deflection of the shots fired by a very skilled killer just steps away from his target, and the subsequent saving of the Pope, have given this event a strong spiritual significance,” Scaraffia said.
The coincidence of the date with the first apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fatima confirmed this significance, she added, noting that Mary’s message was dedicated particularly to the rise of communism.
How Pope John Paul II was shot FOUR TIMES by gunman in front of the Vatican – but went on to forgive his would-be killer
HUNDREDS of doting pilgrims packed into the streets of Vatican City on a sunny May afternoon to greet the Pope John Paul II - and then four gunshots rang out.
In the blink of an eye, the smiling pontiff turned pale and collapsed having been struck by four bullets, his life hanging in the balance.
Cheers from the crowd turned to screams as the open top Popemobile sped away flanked by security, rushing Pontiff to hospital.
John Paul II lost almost three quarters of his blood and underwent five hours of operations - but miraculously survived.
But in an even more astonishing turn, he forgave his attacker and become friends with the assassin, a Turkish terrorist named Mehmet Ali Ağca.
The attempted assassination that shocked the world happened exactly 40 years ago today.
But rewinding four decades to May 13, 1981 paints a very different picture of him.
As the Pope entered St Peter's Square, Ağca pulled the trigger, firing multiple times - striking the Pope twice in the stomach, once in his left hand and once in his right arm.
Panic erupted as shots rang out in the holy city shortly after 5.15pm.
Cries of terror and screams could be heard rippling through the streets, with two innocent bystanders also struck in the hail of fire.
The hit was a carefully masterminded plot by Ağca, who had two years earlier described the Pope as "the masked leader of the crusades" and threatened to kill him if a planned trip to Turkey went ahead - which it did.
Ağca escaped prison after being jailed for murdering journalist Abdi İpekçi in 1979, and in August 1980 began crisscrossing the Mediterranean region - changing his passport and identifies over and over.
The assassin, who was 23 at the time of his attack on the Pope, then met with three accomplices in Rome, having caught the train to the capital from Milan on May 10, 1981 - according to his testimony.
They sat in St Peter's Square writing postcards on May 13, but when Pope John Paul II arrived - standing in the back of an open-air car - Ağca drew out a 9mm Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol and took aim at the pontiff.
Flanked by security guards, the Pope immediately lost colour in his face and slumped into the arms of his aides, while the sound of bells and cheers turned into screams from thousands of horrified onlookers.
The pontiff - critically injured and suffering severe blood loss - lost consciousness as the driver raced to get him to the Agostino Gemelli University Polyclinic hospital.
Cops ran behind the Popemobile as his team sheltered him from view with jackets.
Then aged 60, he underwent five hours of surgery after almost three-quarters of his blood drained from his body as a result of his wounds.
Despite this, the Pope miraculously survived.
Ağca attempted to flee the scene and threw his weapon - which he had paid the equivalent of £10,000 to a man on the streets of Vienna for - under a lorry.
But he was caught by a nun, security chief and other bystanders who held him until he was arrested.
One of his accomplices, Oral Çelik, had lost his nerve and made off without setting off his bomb or opening fire - scuppering their original plan to escape to the Bulgarian embassy amid the chaos.
Ağca was sentenced to life in prison that June for the assassination attempt.
But while most would be glad to see their would-be killer locked up, the Pope took a different stance and instead went on to forge an unlikely friendship with the convict.
Shortly after the shooting, the Pope told people to "pray for my brother (Ağca), whom I have sincerely forgiven".
Then, two years after the attempted assassination sent shockwaves across the world, the pontiff visited Ağca in Rome's Rebibbia Prison.
The pair were pictured speaking for around 22 minutes, with Ağca reportedly kissing the Pope's ring at the end of their dialogue.
After, John Paul II said: "What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me.
"I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust."
Almost 20 years after he was jailed, Ağca was pardoned by the then-Italian president in June 2000, at the request of the Pope, and deported to Turkey.
Once back in his native country, Ağca was put straight back behind bars to serve the rest of the sentence he had fled two decades prior.
The Pope remained in touch with both Ağca and his family, and when he fell ill in 2005, Ağca sent him a letter of well-wishes.
Pope John Paul II passed away on April 2, 2005, with Ağca later saying it "felt like his brother or best friend had died" in an interview with the Mirror.
Almost three decades after the former terrorist tried to kill the Pope, Ağca was set free from jail.
Prior to his release on January 18, 2010, Ağca had converted to Roman Catholicism.
In 2014, despite being banned from Italy, he made a clandestine visit the Vatican to lay white roses on John Paul II's tomb.
In the years that have proceeded that sombre day in 1981, numerous theories as to why Ağca plotted to kill the Pope have swirled.
Yet the motive remains a mystery, with allegations and accusations launched at the Bulgarian government, Turkish mafia, CIA, and others.
Four decades on, Ağca has renounced his violent past and had said he is "relieved" the Pope didn't die at his hands.
As of last year, the former killer - now 63 - was living in the suburbs in Istanbul, feeding stray cats and dogs near him home.
"I’m a good man now. I try to live my life properly," he told the Mirror.
"When I shot him I was 23. I was young and I was ignorant.
“I remember how rational I felt. I fired the gun and then it jammed.
"It was destiny. And it was destiny he survived. I am very glad he didn’t die."
His motive has never been fully explained, but Ağca has since claimed the Soviet Union was behind the assassination attempt, saying "they wanted him dead".
He also said he had an English girlfriend in the months before the assassination bid
Panic And Prayers: The Day John Paul II Was Shot
Saint Peter's Square in Rome was packed with 20,000 faithful hoping to catch a glimpse of John Paul II on that fateful May afternoon 40 years ago.
Suddenly as his open white Fiat "Popemobile" eased through the crowd, the pontiff collapsed -- shot at close range by a far-right Turkish nationalist whose motives remain mysterious to this day.
At 5:41 pm on May 13, 1981 AFP flashed: "Pope John Paul II wounded by two gun shots."
The 60-year-old Karol Wojtyla was immediately rushed to hospital. He was hit in the abdomen, left hand and right arm. Two women in the Polish-born pope's entourage were also hurt.
The Browning handgun used by Mehmet Ali Agca to shoot the pope at close range Photo: AFP / JANEK SKARZYNSKI
Rome was gripped by panic. Paramedics, police and journalists rushed to the scene and to the hospital.
Italian authorities quickly confirmed the shooter -- 23-year-old Mehmet Ali Agca -- had been arrested and that his weapon was a Browning handgun.
His accomplice -- another Turk -- Oral Celik fled and was arrested a few years later in France for drug trafficking and then extradited to Italy.
Mehmet Ali Agca spent nearly three decades behind bars for his failed attempt to kill the pope and other crimes Photo: AFP / OZAN KOSE
The news set off a frenzy around the world and prayers flooded in for the first-ever Slavic pope.
Elected in 1978, the charismatic Jean Paul II had made several international trips that turned into massive media events and proved wildly popular.
His insistence on direct contact with the faithful -- taking children in his arms and allowing people to touch him -- was completely new, but complicated the work of his security team.
The atmosphere at the Vatican that day was "unreal and mind-blowing" according to one AFP journalist.
Pope John Paul II a few seconds before he was shot Photo: POOL
Worried Catholics gathered in St Peter's Square repeated Vatican Radio prayers blasting out from loudspeakers as police choppers flew low above them.
One woman in the crowd cried out everyone's worst fear: "The pope is dead."
But the famously tough John Paul II was out of the woods -- no vital organ had been affected and he came through the critical surgery lasting nearly six hours.
Pope John Paul II collapsed in the papal Jeep after being shot in Saint Peter's Square in Rome on May 13, 1981 Photo: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / ARTURO MARI
After a night of prayers across Rome, roses were laid down where the pope had been shot.
News of his recovery was encouraging but only the pontiff himself could quell the anxious crowds, and on the Sunday morning John Paul II in an unprecedented move addressed worshippers from his hospital bed in a recorded message.
When the message was broadcast, Rome came to a standstill.
On one of the big avenues leading to Saint Peter's Square "all activity stopped for a few moments. People came out of buses, cafes and souvenir shops to hear the weak but reassuring voice" of the pope, AFP reported.
In his message, he asked his followers to pray for "my brother" who shot him and said he had "sincerely forgiven" him.
By June 3 John Paul II was back on his feet -- and more popular than ever.
John Paul II went to see his attempted assassin in prison, on December 27, 1983.
When they met, Agca knelt down before him and their conversation turned into an emotional confession. Afterwards the pope said Agca had repented and again said he had pardoned him.
A member of the notorious far-right Grey Wolves group, Agca was released from an Ankara prison in 2010 after nearly three decades behind bars for the failed assassination and other crimes committed in Turkey.
His other most famous victim was the acclaimed left-leaning Turkish journalist Abdi Ipekci, who he and Celik murdered in Istanbul in 1979.
Several theories abound about who was behind Agca's attempt on the pope's life, with some tracing it to the KGB in Moscow.
The pope -- who has since been made a saint -- had been an unwavering opponent of communism.
Agca -- who at one stage claimed that he wanted to convert to Catholicism and even become a priest, later comparing himself to the Messiah -- has only deepened the mystery.
The hitman, now 63, at first said the Russians were behind his bid, but changed his story in his memoirs saying the Iranians put him up to it. The Vatican has dismissed this as a lie.
In his last book in 2005, the year of his death, John Paul II said he was sure the assassination had been ordered.
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As a young priest in Poland, he had butted heads many times with communist officials. In the late 1950s, Polish Catholics erected a cross where they wanted to build a church in the Krakow suburb of Nowa Huta, which had been selected by the communists to be a "workers’ paradise."
The future pope celebrated Mass for them. The communists tore down the cross. He became a bishop, and they put up a new one. The communists tore it down. This kept up until 1977 when his efforts prevailed, and he consecrated the town’s first church.
John Paul II’s triumphant return to Poland in 1979 also enraged the Kremlin. Communist officials were furious when millions turned out to see the new pope. Poles hailed him as a conquering hero. The Soviet-backed Polish government failed to suppress the pope’s message of religious liberty.
So, it was no surprise when the Italian government’s investigation found that Ağca, who had murdered a journalist three years earlier, was hired by the Bulgarian secret service, a puppet regime of the Soviet Union.
If John Paul knew Moscow was behind the attempt, why keep silent?
Reagan scholar Paul Kengor, who wrote the foreword to my book on John Paul II, proves that the Bulgarians ran cover for Moscow. They wanted the pope dead for supporting the Polish Solidarity movement and his defiance of the Soviet regime.
According to Kengor, Reagan instructed the CIA to run its own top-secret investigation into the pope’s shooting. He found that a Soviet intelligence agency (the GRU) had ordered the hit.
If John Paul knew Moscow was behind the attempt, why keep silent?
Both the pope and the president wanted nothing more than to see the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. They were convinced that exposing the Kremlin’s attempt to take out the pope would have been counterproductive. History has proven them right.
John Paul was perhaps more acutely aware of the devastation caused by the flawed ideologies of the 20th century than any other world leader of his era.
He lived through the German and communist occupation of Poland, which ended in 1989 after the country’s first free elections in generations yielded disastrous results for the communists. The pope’s homeland was key to bringing freedom to Eastern Europe, something he was more than willing to take a bullet for.
"Not only did the people reject Nazism as a system aimed at the destruction of Poland, and communism as an oppressive system imposed from the East, but in the process of resistance, they also pursued highly positive ideals," John Paul wrote in his 2005 book "Memory and Identity."
Those ideals were key to communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe. The Soviet empire was crumbling from within. Its economy was weak for many reasons, not the least of which was that the Soviets were trying to keep up with the U.S. in the arms race.
The sculpture of the late Pope John Paul II during the unveiling ceremony in Czestochowa, Poland, on Saturday, April 13, 2013. Archbishop Waclaw Depo unveiled the 13.8-meter (45.3-foot) white fiberglass figure that was funded by a businessman, Leszek Lyson, in gratitude for what he believes was an intervention by the late pontiff in saving his drowning son. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski) (AP2013)
Most importantly, however, Reagan and John Paul were utterly convinced that they were on the right side of history.
"The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization," Reagan said in 1981. "The West won’t contain communism it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to dismiss or denounce it it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written."
John Paul exposed atheistic communism’s errors in his first encyclical, published just five months into his pontificate.
"Certainly the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience, but it is above all an attack on man’s very dignity, independently of the religion professed or of the concept of the world which these individuals and communities have."
Pope John Paul II was relentless in the pursuit of freedom and truth.
Throughout his papacy, his rallying cry was "be not afraid!" In his book, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," he writes, "The power of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection is greater than any evil which man could or should fear."
He believed that there is no challenge, no evil, and no amount of suffering that is too big for God. With that belief, he changed the world.