20 Important Facts on the Assassination Attempt on John Paul II

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I wrote the following article for the National Catholic Register. The featured image marks the exact spot where the pontiff was shot.

On May 13, 1981, thirty-six years ago, Pope John Paul II was on the brink of death. I wasn’t alive, but I’ve seen news reports from the time, and it’s horrifying to think what the faithful, and the world where going through. Like I said, I wasn’t born yet, and I’ve discovered some incredible facts about the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square while reading Fatima Mysteries, a new and beautiful book by Ignatius Press. Here’s some facts I’ve not read anywhere else.

1. Twenty thousand people were there. The scene that day must have been traumatic for so many people, but especially those close to the incident — 20,000 people!

2. The shooter wasn’t that clever. He had a passport in his pocket with a fake name and was quickly identified as a man sentenced to death just a year earlier in Turkey.

3. He apparently spared a child’s life. Perhaps it was a merciful act, perhaps another motive. But John Paul II reached out and cuddled an eighteen-month-old. The shooter, Mehmet Ali Agca, waited for the child to be returned to his mother before pulling the trigger.

4. The weapon was popular among assassins. The gun was produced en masse by the Nazis when they seized a Belgian factory. The Browning Hi Power 9mm was powerful, light, reliable, well-made. Hence, a favorite for toting assassins.

5. John Paul II said “no” to a bulletproof vest. A year earlier he was quoted in Ireland saying that “danger is an occupational hazard.” That’s just plain awesome.

6. Two shots were taken. Boom, boom. One after the other. Agca was “certain he would kill the pope.”

7. A sad ending for the Swiss Guard. A young Swiss Guard member Alois Estermann threw himself on the pope. He was practically famous and became the commander of all the Guards in a future year. In another future year, he and his wife were murdered and the murderer committed suicide. Pray for them all, now. Lord have mercy on us poor sinners.

8. A plot twist. One bullet hit the pope’s abdomen, the other hit the left elbow. But experts analyzed the trajectory and said that they must have come from two different points of origin. And—double plot twist—there was a third bullet found at the scene. Angels are real. 

9. There were four assassins. One with a bomb. Each waiting. The bomber withdraws.

10. Others were wounded. Two Americans were wounded by the bullets: an arm, and a throat.

11. The pope was responsive. Secretary: “Where?”

Pope: “The stomach.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Yes. It hurts. It hurts.”

12. Ambulance problems. The popemobile pulled up to an ambulance but it wouldn’t work. A new ambulance comes.

13. Ambulance irony. The pope blessed this never-before-used ambulance just a day before, saying, “I also give my blessings to this ambulance’s first patient.” Wow…

14. Ambulatory dash. The driver providentially chose the longer route, which was much less occupied by traffic. However, the horn and the steering wheel received a good amount of use and they nearly crashed several times racing to the hospital—even threated with a machine gun my one police! The pope was unsecured… so his head banged against the doctor’s knee several times.

15. His words reflect his heart. “Mary. My Mother. Mary! My Mother!” was all he uttered.

16. Nobody at the hospital knew about the pope’s arrival. Because it was fast and because… 1981…

17. He lives. Okay no surprise there, but gosh—he hits a fever of 104 degrees a month later and that almost kills him, too. He lives. Whew!

18. Reagan prayed. The President of the United States, recovering from his own assassination attempt, ensured the Pope that he would pray for him. Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, also sends a message.

19. The pope makes a strange request. Perhaps not so strange to the Pope, the day he was shot was also the anniversary of a day that would become one of the most important in the 20th century—the beginning of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal in 1917. He aptly requests the full and authentic texts of the “secret” for his study.

20. He credits Mary. Who wouldn’t?

To learn more on this, and much more on the rest of Fatima—it is the 100th anniversary after all—get reading Fatima Mysteries by Ignatius Press today.

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