A marble engraving marks the exact spot where the assassination attempt occurred in St. Peter’s Square.
On May 13, 1981, an assassin’s gunshots were fired inside
St. Peter’s Square. It was the day Pope St. John Paul II was set to deliver an
inspiring message in support of human dignity, work, and freedom and make two
surprise announcements regarding the Church’s efforts to vigorously promote the
institution of the family.
Exactly 35 years ago at 5:17 pm, the Turkish
ultra-nationalist, convicted killer, and mercenary Mehmet Ali Agca tried
to silence a charismatic pope forever. It occurred just minutes before the Holy
Father’s Wednesday general audience speech. The Pope’s white vehicle was
making its final set of turns toward the platform where he would soon speak to
about 70,000 international pilgrims.
The 23-year-old Turk was also a fugitive
with ties to the mob, espionage, Bulgarian communist leadership, KGB
intelligence, Syrian terrorist cells, and even Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Many
believe that that his attempt to assassinate John Paul II was the culmination
of an international plot masterminded by Moscow.
While lying in wait with his accomplice,
Oral Çelik (who
had planned to explode a small bomb as diversion tactic),
his 9-millimeter gun and sent four bullets into the body of John Paul. Bedlam rocked the scene that sunny Wednesday
It was a
living nightmare for many faithful, especially for those who had jumped to the
conclusion that this tragic event had fulfilled the then-unrevealed Third Secret
of Fatima. After all, the day marked the 64th anniversary of Mary’s first apparition
in Portugal. Perhaps the world hadn’t been praying hard enough for the
conversion of Russia and the victory of Christ east of the Iron Curtain.
relive the late 1970s and early 1980s to recall the reason for panic. These
were tense times, with genuine fears of a nuclear holocaust and concerns about
a Soviet military intervention into Poland. Efforts to realize Marxist revolutions
in Central and South America were widespread. The very weak and pacifying foreign
policy of the Jimmy Carter administration had not helped America’s ability to
reverse the momentum of Soviet influence. Then there was the economic “stagflation”
that had undermined Western economies, not to mention the AIDs pandemic and
drug wars raging in both hemispheres.
And now one
of freedom’s true beacons of hope lay slumped in his own pool of blood. The
entire “JP II generation” took a collective gasp and braced for the worse. No
one knew what would happen next. Was this the beginning of the end?
The rest of the
We all know the rest of the story. Four of Agca’s bullets did hit their target, but not
fatally so. After five hours of surgery and losing nearly three-fourths of the blood
in his body, the Pope stabilized. Doctors removed the two bullets lodged in the
pope’s lower abdomen, one just missing his central aorta. They also repaired damaged
tissue on his left hand and right arm, where the other two bullets struck.
a few days, the pope was getting back to his usual bright and lively self, although
he would not hold another general audience until the early fall.
1984, in a sign of gratitude to Marywho he believed had saved his life (“one
hand fired the shot, another guided it”)John Paul donated his blood-stained
sash to the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in his native Poland. On March 25
of that year he dedicated the entire worldincluding Russiato the Immaculate
Heart of Mary. The bullet that nearly killed him was given to the Bishop of
Leira-Fatima, who placed it in the bejeweled crown of the Fatima shrine’s statue
of Our Lady. Finally, he installed a mosaic of Mary, Mater Ecclesiae with the
affectionate inscription “totus tuus” in St. Peter’s Square.
was sentenced to life in prison in Italy, while his accomplice, Oral Çelik, who
had fled the scene, was arrested 15 years later in
Switzerland and extradited to Turkish authorities for sentencing.
whom John Paul had befriended and sincerely forgiven after visiting him in
prison, was reported to have eventually converted to Catholicism. John Paul II asked for
his clemency and deportation from Italian President Carlo Ciampi, which was
finally granted in 2000. He served another 10 years in Turkish incarceration before
being paroled in 2010.
story ends 33 years later on December 26, 2014 when Agca visited the tomb of
the canonized pope, where he laid a dozen white roses as sign of his repentance
and love of the man he nearly murdered.
But what was the Pope going
to say 35 years ago?
Many of us, however, don’t know is what the Holy Father was
planning to say at the general audience on May 13, 1981.
It was a significant day. It was the 64th anniversary of
Mary’s first apparition at Fatima, where she exhorted Christians to pray for Russia’s
conversion. It was also two days prior to the 90th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the 1891 landmark social
encyclical that roundly condemned socialism while calling for a culture that
sustains private property rights, the nuclear family, the centrality of the
person, and limits on government economic intervention, at a moment in time
when Karl Marx’s political philosophy was spreading through Europe. All these
contexts were key elements of the Pope’s prepared remarks and two surprise
The Vatican website does contain the original
audience text, but only in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The remarks in
Englishthe lingua franca for most of the educated
available until late last week when Diane Montagna, the Vatican correspondent
for Aleteia, published
the exclusive translation.
The Pope’s speech dives immediately into the significance of
Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.
John Paul writes in deep admiration of the landmark social encyclical, saying
it “presented to all mankind a magnificent social ideal,
drawing…from the ever living and vital fountains of the Gospel!”
He then wanted to remind all those in
St. Peter’s Square that the Church has the “duty to give moral directives” in
terms of “socio-economic” questions. The Pope was clearly an advocate of
keeping the Church’s social teachings alive, particularly at the height of the
divisive Cold War.
Citing the work of the Second Vatican
Council, John Paul wrote “the whole Church must work vigorously in order that
men may become capable of rectifying the
distortion of the temporal order and directing it to God through Christ.”
To this, he added: “Thus emerges the
first great teaching of the celebration of this 90th anniversary: that of
reaffirming the Church’s right and competence to exercise her role freely among men, and to pass moral
judgment also in those matters which regard the public order when the
fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it.” In teaching
“authentic magisterium,” he wrote, we must always understand the “dignity of man as the image of God” and
focus on the “safeguarding of his inalienable rights.”
John Paul then wrote that, in working
to achieve the common good, “justice [is] understood as the promotion and
integral liberation of the human person in his earthly and transcendent
dimension” while comprehending “its foundation, the truth about human nature itself.”
These reflections on Rerum Novarum helped John Paul build his
argument for what is perhaps his most penetrating analysis of socialism and
communism, his third social encyclical Centesimus Annus,
published 10 years later. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling
of the USSR in 1991, the Pope criticized the gross “anthropological error” of communism.
All forms of collectivism, according to John Paul II, denied the truth of human
freedom while over-emphasizing the social dimension of human nature and under-emphasizing
individuality. It also viewed human needs and happiness solely through the lens
of material atheism, strictly as a homo
economicus, while disregarding his essential spiritual nature and work in
in the service of God.
Following his praise of Rerum Novarum, John Paul II was planning
to announce the creation of a new Vatican council and academic faculty to
promote the Judeo-Christian view of the family, an essential institution in his
vision of a “civilization of love” and one which would foster subsidiarity to
help solve social problems both locally and privately. This was contrary to the
collectivist vision which, as he knew from his native communist Poland, crowded
out the private responsibilities of families and individuals in favor of the
At the end of John Paul’s text we read:
“Now I wish to announce to you that, in order to meet in a more suitable manner
the expectations regarding the problems concerning the family expressed by the
episcopate of the whole world…I have thought it appropriate to establish the
Pontifical Council for the Family…. This new body…will be responsible for the
promotion of the pastoral care of families and the specific apostolate in the
field of family life, in accordance with the teachings and guidelines
manifested by the competent bodies of the Magisterium.”
“I have also decided to establish, at
the Pontifical Lateran University…an International Institute of Studies on
Marriage and Family, which will commence its academic activities next October….
It will be the place where the knowledge of the truth about marriage and the
family will be deepened, in the light of faith, with the added aid of the
various human sciences.”
Indeed, while they were never announced
at the audience, these two Institutions soon came to full fruition. The Australian
Cardinal James Knox began serving as the Pontifical Council for the Family’s
first president in 1981. The John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and
Family had its original facility within the Pontifical Lateran University, just
as John Paul promised. What, the Pope could not have imagined was just how
quickly many extension campuses and program initiatives would be established on
other continents, as well as the seemingly infinite online and distance-learning
programs that would emerge thanks to the Internet.
Message and Messenger live on
As the old saying goes, “You may kill the messenger, but you can't kill the message.” On that fateful day 35 years ago, neither
the messenger nor his message could be snuffed out so speedily by Mehmet
Ali Agca and his
John PauI II would serve another tireless 24 years as the
Vicar of Christ on Earth. He left a legacy that inspired an entire generation,
teaching them to remain steadfast in their convictions. He became a role model
and hero who taught the world to trust always in God’s providence and grace.
At the same timein what is surely a huge lesson in this Jubilee
Year of MercyJohn Paul showed us the enduring power of forgiveness, which can
convert even the hardest of hardened criminals, as vividly testified by the
changed life of his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca.