‘Everyone was crying’: An eyewitness recalls the attempted assassination of St John Paul II

CNA Staff   By CNA Staff


An arrow points to David DePerro in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. / Magda Gorman/Used by permission.

Vatican City, May 13, 2022 / 03:47 am (CNA).

On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Ağca shot Pope John Paul II and critically injured him. The pictures of the pontiff in a blood-soaked cassock in a jeep went around the world. David DePerro, who was nine years old at the time, saw the assassination attempt at close range.

In an interview, the now 50-year-old speaks about how he experienced the attack and explains why he only talks about it decades later.

Markus Vögele: On May 13, 1981, you were in St. Peter’s Square when Mehmet Ali Ağca shot Pope John Paul II. From what distance did you see the assassination attempt?

David DePerro: We were close enough to the assassination attempt for the priest in our group to see the gun itself.

And what exactly did you see?

The pope had spent a long time working through the crowd, shaking the hands of all those crowded to the alley barrier. A few minutes later, the vehicle came around to the other side of the alley across from us. As the pope was greeting those people, I heard the sound of firecrackers popping. It was very confusing. At some point, the crowd descended into confusion and grief. Everyone was crying. I was in shock but I could not cry and I felt guilty about that. An annoying voice came on the loudspeaker to pray in Italian. My little sister was scared and wanted Mom. They took all of our camera film as evidence. It took hours to get back on our bus, which came into St. Peter’s Square to get us. The crowd across from us had descended on the gunman. I did not see this, but there are many things I know without having seen them myself because we were all in the same group and saw different things and talked about them later.

David DePerro, who lives today in Virginia. Magda Gorman, (c) 2022
David DePerro, who lives today in Virginia. Magda Gorman, (c) 2022

One of the bullets fired at the pope also hit a tourist you knew.

Rose [Hall] was a member of our group. She was not at the front but was standing further back away from the alleyway and the vehicle. Her elbow was resting on the shoulder of the religious sister in our group — that was the elbow that the bullet went through. It was sad to leave her behind. But the L’Osservatore Romano from that time has a photo with her visiting John Paul in his hospital room, so I am glad she got to do that. My father tells me that we had a prayer service in our later stop in Assisi to pray for Rose and the pope.

Pope John Paul II collapses after being shot on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square. Audycje Radiowe/YouTube.
Pope John Paul II collapses after being shot on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square. Audycje Radiowe/YouTube.

Immediately after the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the cameras were confiscated and not returned to their owners. Do you have any memorabilia from that day?

One of the rare photos we have is a great side-by-side photo of my older sister Lisa and the Holy Father John Paul from that day. My sister Lisa died last year. We have photos that we bought from L’Osservatore Romano showing each of us in different angles with the pope from that day. I was in the background of a photo in Die Aktuelle from July 1981. The pope is seen slumped in the arms of his attendant, and I am in the background wearing a blue hat. The hat was, sadly, later lost. The headline of the article asked if the shooting of the pope was related to the Third Secret of Fatima. The Vatican revealed in May 2000 that it was related and described that relationship.

The assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II took place on the anniversary of the Marian apparition in Fatima. In 1917, three shepherd children are said to have seen the Blessed Mother and to have received three secrets from her.

The secrets of Fatima encompass the children’s vision of hell (and personal promise of heaven), the prayers for Russia and the ending of the war, and finally, the pope struck down, among other disturbing visions. Indeed, when John Paul was in the hospital, he asked to see the Fatima records. He turned to the Blessed Mother, he turned to the Fatima children. I was only nine when the pope was shot. So Jacinta and Francisco and Lucia, the sainted Fatima children, are my special comfort, my special companions. That is the outcome of May 13, 1981.

A plaque marks the spot in St. Peter's Square where St. John Paul II was shot on May 13, 1981. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.
A plaque marks the spot in St. Peter’s Square where St. John Paul II was shot on May 13, 1981. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

How did your pilgrimage actually come about?

We were a busload of American tourists from Leighton Barracks in Würzburg, West Germany. My father was the logistics officer for the air defense artillery missile battalion. My mother and two sisters and myself were in St. Peter’s Square. Dad was not in St. Peter’s Square that day because he went to his ancestral village. But he remembers many things that he saw after the shootings, and he also remembers what he heard secondhand about the day itself.

You were a nine-year-old at that time. Did anything change in your life as a result of that day?

Only after many decades did I start speaking about what I saw that day. I’ve spent decades processing this, learning how to stay safe and keep others safe, how to recover from trauma. I had no counselors or therapists in the early days back then. Shootings are no longer rare, they are in the news all the time. Children are traumatized and even their own parents and teachers (and counselors) do not know what they are really feeling and what to say to them. The most important thing is to listen to the child and not try to tell the child what to feel.

Did anything change in your life as a result of that day in May 1981?

As a result of that day in 1981, I am a person who sees the action of God in history. I feel the pain that children feel when they are witnesses or victims of violence. I search for the meaning of events. I search for how healing can be obtained. I try to reconcile justice with mercy and forgiveness. As life goes on, there is more to forgive, and it is harder to forgive. It is even harder, as life goes on, to forgive myself too. The example of John Paul is like a ghost that haunts. He forgave his attacker because he felt the hand of God in his affliction, he saw God’s plan. He trusted that plan.

How will you spend May 13 this year?

The Blessed Lady of Fatima spoke through these children: she asked us to pray for Russia. The Church and the people have forgotten to do that. Maybe that’s why all this madness is happening. A few years ago, I started to teach myself Russian, to study Russian history, and to meet ordinary Russian people in America. I deepened my understanding of the events I saw that day. On May 13, I will follow Mary’s request. I will pray for Russia. I will pray the rosary and make many other private prayers.

This interview by Markus Vögele was first published by CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

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