Forty years ago the shocking assassination attempt on the life of John Paul II took place in Saint Peter’s Square. It’s a day that entered our collective memory when love and prayer defeated hatred.
There are dates that remind us not only of things we read of in history books, but also of the history we have lived. These powerful events are indelibly inscribed on the pages of our own lives. The impression left by these events is so strong that even many years later we can remember perfectly where we were and what we were doing when the news of what happened reached us.
May 13, 1981, is undoubtedly one of these dates. That day, an event considered impossible and unimaginable burst into reality: an attack against the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. Forty years later, it still evokes chills when recalling that dramatic sequence of events, the sounds and noises that erupted on that spring afternoon. It was 5:19 p.m. when John Paul II, during his customary visit among the faithful gathered for the Wednesday General Audience, took a little girl into his arms and then held her out to her parents. A few moments later, the deafening sound of a gunshot was heard, and then another. The Pope, shot in the abdomen, collapsed in the open vehicle that was taking him around the square. Frantic moments. People were stunned. At first, they did not understand and could not believe what had happened.
Many of the pilgrims broke into tears. Others knelt down in prayer, some using the rosaries they had brought for the Pope to bless. Some remembered that on that very day, 13 May some 64 years earlier, Our Lady had appeared to the shepherd children of Fatima. The Pope, known for his motto Totus tuus, Maria! was then entrusted by the People of God into the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary. John Paul II would later confide that it was precisely to the Blessed Mother’s intervention that he attributed his survival. If someone’s hand wanted to kill him, another, more powerful hand deflected the bullet, saving his life.
Very quickly, on that afternoon of May 13, prayers radiated rapidly in concentric circles from the Vatican and embraced the entire world. Prayer became the spontaneous response of millions of people as soon as they learned that the Pope was struggling between life and death.
Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, the future Pope Francis, was also praying during those hours. At the time, he was rector of the Colegio Máximo de San José in San Miguel, province of Buenos Aires. He, too, was shaken by what had happened. Today, Pope Francis shared with us his own memory of that 13 May: He was at the Apostolic Nunciature in Argentina, meeting with the Nuncio, Archbishop Ubaldo Calabresi, and Venezuelan Father Ugalde before lunch. It was then that the secretary of the Nunciature, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, gave him the terrible news.
It was amazing that, despite the emotion of the moment, Vatican Radio reporter, Benedetto Nardacci, was able to report live with unbroken clarity during the weekly General Audience that Wednesday when forced to report an event he never would have chosen to recount. “For the first time”, Nardacci said during his live Vatican Radio broadcast, “there is talk of terrorism even in the Vatican. We are talking about terrorism in a place where a message of love has always been transmitted, a message of harmony and a message of peace.”
The prayer of the faithful around the world was constant and did not let up until John Paul II was out of danger. In some ways, it could be said that prayer accompanied and protected him until the end of his earthly life, especially in times of suffering and illness, culminating during his last days in the spring of 2005.
The unleashing of hatred brought about by that criminal act was strong, even apocalyptic in some respects. Even stronger, however, would be the power of love and mercy, that would lead the whole subsequent journey of John Paul II’s earthly life and pontificate luminously and at the same time “mysteriously”. Four days later, this was surprisingly witnessed, when, while reciting the Regina Caeli from his room at Gemelli Hospital where he was hospitalized, Pope John Paul II assured his forgiveness to the person who tried to assassinate him, calling him “the brother who struck me”. He actually called him his “brother”.
It would be this common fraternity – unbreakable despite everything that may happen on earth, since it is inscribed in Heaven – that would be the protagonist once again on another hard-to-forget date: December 27, 1983. On that day, John Paul II visited Ali Ağca in Rome’s Rebibbia prison. He made the visit public. As someone observed at the time, the Pope wished to save the life of the one who wanted to strip it from him. “We met as fellow human beings and as brothers”, the Pope said after the meeting, “since we are all brothers and all the events of our lives must confirm the fraternity that comes from the fact that God is our Father”.
It is the same fraternity that Pope Francis today shows us to be the only way forward for the future of humanity.
Gun Shots, Fear, Prayer and Forgiveness
Forty years ago, the assassination attempt on John Paul II took place in Saint Peter’s Square. A video with commentary by André Frossard recalls those shocking events, together with the disarming power of mercy and forgiveness.
Forty years on, the images from those events are still troubling today. The Pope, sixty years old and still in full physical health, lifts and holds a little girl with blond curly hair. Her parents had just lifted her up to the Pope for his blessing. Immediately afterwards, gun shots rang out, the Pope collapsed in the arms of his secretary, and the white vehicle carrying him ran off suddenly going into the Vatican. Then, the race to Gemelli Hospital, while prayers rose up from the astonished faithful around the world, and hopes were brought alive after a long and complicated surgery.
The most powerful images of the documentary made four years after the assassination attempt are those where the window of the papal study is seen empty and the Pope’s voice is heard, transmitted via radio to the faithful in Saint Peter’s Square. Pope John Paul II never missed his weekly Sunday appointment, even on that May 17, 1981, when he led his first Regina Coeli after the attack. With a faint voice recorded from his hospital bed, he said: “I pray for the brother who struck me, whom I have sincerely forgiven. United to Christ, Priest and Victim, I offer my sufferings for the Church and for the world.”
The first words of the almost mortally wounded Pope were words of forgiveness for his attacker. And this message struck the heart of the whole world with even greater force on 27 December 1983, when John Paul II, the Pope who wrote the encyclical Dives in Misericordia, entered Rome’s Rebibbia prison to visit the cell of Ali Ağca, to embrace the young man who wanted to assassinate him. The documentary features full video of the encounter, but without audio, since no one was allowed to come close and listen to what the Pope and his attacker said to each other.
They are striking and moving images, taking us back to the heart of the Christian message and rendering concretely visible what Pope John Paul II’s successor, Pope Francis, said when visiting with Mexican bishops gathered in the Cathedral of Mexico City on February 23, 2016: “The only power capable of conquering the hearts of men and women is the tenderness of God. That which delights and attracts, that which humbles and overcomes, that which opens and unleashes, is not the power of instruments or the force of law, but rather the omnipotent weakness of divine love, which is the irresistible force of its gentleness and the irrevocable pledge of its mercy.”