Thirty years ago tomorrow, Pope John Paul II was shot in Saint Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Agca. It was the year of the assassins – Ronald Reagan survived the attempt on his life by a madman in March, while Anwar Sadat was killed in September by Islamists enraged by his making peace with Israel. Regarding Agca, the Turk with Bulgarian connections, however lucid he may have been at the time of the shooting, his subsequent explanations have been contradictory, even delusional.
The circumstances of the May 13 attempt have made many sober observers skeptical that Agca acted alone. He was a trained assassin, with shadowy connections to the Bulgarian underworld and secret police. The great suspicion has been that the Soviets in some way or the other wished to rid themselves of this “meddlesome priest,” to use the words of 12th-century King Henry II, spoken of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket was subsequently killed in his cathedral; John Paul very nearly was in the Vatican. When the Soviet archives are eventually opened, it would surprise few to discover that what took place on May 13, 1981, originated in Moscow. Perhaps we shall never know, given that orders of this sort do not usually make it into the files.
The attempt to kill the pope shocked the world in a way that the shootings of Reagan and Sadat did not. But assaults on presidents are actually more surprising than attacks on the pope. After all, the entire Vatican complex is where it is because Peter, the first pope, was martyred only a few hundred metres from where John Paul was shot. Indeed, for the first several generations of the Church’s life, martyrdom for the pope was the rule, not the exception. The pope has tenure for life; for a great many of the successors of St. Peter, it has also been a sentence of death.
Out of the tens of thousands of images of his long pontificate, one of the most often reproduced is John Paul’s visit to Agca in prison. He had forgiven his would-be assassin even when hospitalized after the shooting, but the photograph of him in Agca’s cell, offering him a word of mercy, made an indelible impression. Justice is a rare enough commodity in this world; mercy rarer still.
Even there, though, John Paul was drawing on the history of his office. In recent times, since the French Revolution, the popes have been in danger of mortal combat with the earthly powers of their day. Napoleon, modernity’s first aspiring totalitarian, kidnapped Pope Pius VI in 1798 and forcibly removed him to France, where he died in French captivity. His successor, Pius VII, spent most of his energies doing battle with Napoleon and suffered repeated humiliations at the emperor’s hands. Finally, when Pius VII would bend, but not break, Napoleon sent his troops to Rome and imprisoned him in 1809. That lasted until Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. Restored to liberty in Rome, Pius VII gave refuge to Napoleon’s family, including his mother, and even pleaded for less severe conditions for Napoleon, then imprisoned in St. Helena.
Pius IX had to flee the Vatican in 1848 and remained in Gaeta for more than a year while his physical safety was threatened in Rome. Almost a century later, Pius XII had to watch Nazi occupiers surround the Vatican. So urgent was the threat that Pius XII left instructions for abdicating his office should he be imprisoned by Hitler’s Germany.
The Vatican today, with Bernini’s immense colonnade opening wide unto the world, seems an oasis of peace and welcome. Certainly that is how millions of pilgrims each year experience it. Yet what happened on May 13th, 30 years ago is as much a part of that history as the exuberant crowds and the solemn Masses. There is a single cobblestone in the square discretely painted red, marking the spot where the John Paul was shot. The Church’s path through history, like that of Jesus Himself, is a bloody one, opposed as she always will be by the powers and principalities.
A fortnight ago John Paul was beatified in the same square where he was shot. From Peter onwards it is so. Nero and imperial Rome are gone. Napoleon and his empire are gone. Hitler and the thousand-year Reich fell 988 years short. Moscow’s evil empire is gone. The pope remains. So too does the red cobblestone, a reminder that evil finds its way into the great colonnade.