The day they tried to kill the Message and the Messenger

On the 35th anniversary of the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II—a look at the message of hope he intended to deliver at his Wednesday general audience

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), Agca withdrew his 9-millimeter gun and sent four bullets into the body of John Paul.  Bedlam rocked the scene that sunny Wednesday afternoon.

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.

One must 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 story

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.

Within 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.  

In 1984, in a sign of gratitude to Mary—who 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 world—including Russia—to 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.

Agca 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.

Agca, 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.

The 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 announcements.

The Vatican website does contain the original audience text, but only in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The remarks in English—the lingua franca for most of the educated world—were not 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. 

Two big announcements

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 omnipotent state.

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.

The 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 enablers.

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 time—in what is surely a huge lesson in this Jubilee Year of Mercy—John 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. 

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About Michael Severance 12 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.