On 13 May 1981 in St Peter’s Square an attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II. The assassin, who was quickly apprehended, but not before his bullets hit the pope four times, was one Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had escaped from prison in his country.
The pope was wounded in the abdomen, left hand and right arm; “Mary, my mother,” John Paul gasped as he collapsed. Yet, he quickly made full recovery even though a 41-hour operation removed part of his intestine and replaced almost all his blood with transfusions.
The background of the assassination attempt has never been satisfactorily explained. Ali Agca, a lapsed Muslim who had links to a Turkish ultranationalist group, the Gray Wolves, never explained his motives. He suggested that the K.G.B. and Bulgarian intelligence were involved, but later retracted those claims. Investigators founded tantalizing details that seemed to support some of his assertions, but nothing was proved, and three Bulgarians and three Turks arrested in connection to the case were released.
Ali Agca, however, received life imprisonment, and remained in prison until June 2000, when he was officially pardoned. However, he had long been forgiven by the pope, both publicly from his hospital bed, and privately when he went to visit Ali Agca in prison. On that moving occasion, Ali Agca knelt and kissed the Fisherman’s ring in a sign of respect; he did not ask for forgiveness. Instead, he said, “I know I was aiming right. I know that the bullet was a killer, So why aren’t you dead?”
Over the years, John Paul, who was very mystical for a pope, had always asked himself the same question. The fact that the bullets missed vital organs by millimetres confirmed the near messianic sense of his mission on earth. John Paul always maintained that his survival was a miracle, and that he had been spared for some divine purpose.
The assassination had been attempted on the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three shepherd children first allegedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, and John Paul II credited the Madonna of Fatima with saving his life. The near fatal bullet was fitted into a jeweled crown worn by her statue. In May 2000, the Vatican revealed that the third part of the vision imparted to the children at Fatima, which was long kept secret, had been an assassination attempt on a pope.