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Saint Pope John Paul II Saint Pope John Paul II  (Vatican Media)

Gun shots, fear, prayer and forgiveness

Forty years ago, the assassination attempt on John Paul II took place in Saint Peter's Square. A video with commentary by André Frossard recalls those shocking events, together with the disarming power of mercy and forgiveness.

By Andrea Tornielli

Forty years on, the images from those events are still troubling today. The Pope, sixty years old and still in full physical health, lifts and holds a little girl with blond curly hair. Her parents had just lifted her up to the Pope for his blessing. Immediately afterwards, gun shots rang out, the Pope collapsed in the arms of his secretary, and the white vehicle carrying him ran off suddenly going into the Vatican. Then, the race to Gemelli Hospital, while prayers rose up from the astonished faithful around the world, and hopes were brought alive after a long and complicated surgery.

The most powerful images of the documentary made four years after the assassination attempt are those where the window of the papal study is seen empty and the Pope’s voice is heard, transmitted via radio to the faithful in Saint Peter’s Square. Pope John Paul II never missed his weekly Sunday appointment, even on that May 17, 1981, when he led his first Regina Coeli after the attack. With a faint voice recorded from his hospital bed, he said: "I pray for the brother who struck me, whom I have sincerely forgiven. United to Christ, Priest and Victim, I offer my sufferings for the Church and for the world."

The first words of the almost mortally wounded Pope were words of forgiveness for his attacker. And this message struck the heart of the whole world with even greater force on 27 December 1983, when John Paul II, the Pope who wrote the encyclical Dives in Misericordia, entered Rome’s Rebibbia prison to visit the cell of Ali Ağca, to embrace the young man who wanted to assassinate him. The documentary features full video of the encounter, but without audio, since no one was allowed to come close and listen to what the Pope and his attacker said to each other.

They are striking and moving images, taking us back to the heart of the Christian message and rendering concretely visible what Pope John Paul II’s successor, Pope Francis, said when visiting with Mexican bishops gathered in the Cathedral of Mexico City on February 23, 2016: “The only power capable of conquering the hearts of men and women is the tenderness of God. That which delights and attracts, that which humbles and overcomes, that which opens and unleashes, is not the power of instruments or the force of law, but rather the omnipotent weakness of divine love, which is the irresistible force of its gentleness and the irrevocable pledge of its mercy.”

Forgiveness, the assassination attempt on John Paul II
12 May 2021, 14:36