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13 May 1981: A radio report of the unthinkable

Forty years ago in St. Peter's Square, Benedetto Nardacci, an historic voice of Vatican Radio, was following the General Audience live when Ali Agca's gun turned John Paul II's celebration with the people into a drama. In spite of the shock, the exceptional lucidity of his account remains a part of the history of the Pope's radio station. We present the highlights in a photographic video.

By Alessandro De Carolis

"The crowd is on its feet... The crowd is on its feet... They hardly comment on the tragic scene they have witnessed. They are almost all silent, waiting for news..."

It was just past 5:17 p.m. in St. Peter's Square and an astonished voice is trying to control a tangle of emotions, attempt to describe live the madness of a world turned upside down. A man has arrived in St. Peter's Square to kill the Pope. Gunshots ring out, producing a brutal dissonance the amid festive voices, and the solid figure of John Paul II slumps backward, bleeding, in the arms of his secretary.

A master at the microphone

The Vatican Radio reporter saw it and could not believe his eyes. He is jas deeply shaken as anyone in St. Peter's Square on that dramatic afternoon of 13 May 1981. Sitting in front of his microphone, Benedetto Nardacci - one of the most beautiful and sought-after voices at Vatican Radio where he has worked since 1956 - tries to make sense of the absurd images that are imprinted in his memory: the Pontiff staggering and falling, the swaying of the crowd close to the crime, the agitation of the security service, the feverish rush, the screams around the white jeep that flies past the Arco delle Campane and, shortly after, the Doppler effect of an ambulance siren that is lost in despair amidst the noise of Rome's traffic... the paralysis, broken by sobs, of 30 thousand astonished people.
 

And yet, the words Nardacci manages to articulate in those seconds are "by the book". In the struggle between the anxiety that grips him and the duty to account for the inconceivable, it is the latter, with difficulty, that has the upper hand. At first, his reflexes as a journalist do the talking.

"We [...] will try to get news and leave the channel open, or rather, we ask the control room if the channel should remain open or not. I'll leave the station for a moment and I'll try to get news, I'll try to find out what happened..."

Already here, the narrative thread risks breaking: the enormity of what happened emerges and for a few moments seems to overwhelm even a master of the microphone.

"My task was only to report on a general audience, one of the many affectionate general audiences given by John Paul II..."

But it was only a matter of an instant. Even if disturbed, his controls his voice and the story continues to flow with the grace that is one of the most appreciated stylistic features of Nardacci and of a school that does not allow verbal excesses even in the face of the improbable. The description that follows, albeit with some imprecision due to distance and shock  — "The general audience was cut short by four to five shots in rapid succession..." — is the sign of a chronicle that soon returns to being concise, that rediscovers certainty and detail:

"The Holy Father was evidently, certainly hit. He was certainly hit, we saw him lying down in the uncovered car that sped into the Vatican..."

At a certain point, he combines the rigor of the reporter with the freedom of the commentator:

"Here it is. For the first time there is talk of terrorism even in the Vatican. Terrorism is being spoken of in a city from which messages of love, messages of harmony, messages of pacification have always come..."

Terrorism in the Vatican

Nardacci's language is appropriate to the context of a country that had been plunged for more than a decade into what theorists define as the "strategy of tension" — a daily trickle of assassinations caused by armed subversion of various ideologies — and betrays the fear that the gloomy wave of Italy's Anni di Piombo ("Years of Lead") had in some way reached a free zone such as the territory of the Holy See. The number of dead since the beginning of 1981 — it was only mid-May — was already uncountable, and the memory of the 76 dead at the Bologna train station less than a year earlier, was still fresh in everyone's mind.

While it is in line with the chronicle, "...We have only seen the Holy Father first wobble, stagger and then fall down in the arms of his secretary, Don Stanislao, and in the arms of his butler. At this point, the uncovered car carrying the Holy Father took off at full speed, passing among the people, to the horror of the people, and entered the Vatican through the L'Arco delle Campane..." Nardacci still knows nothing about Mehmet Alì Agca, nor about the dark plots that led the Turkish killer that afternoon to frame the Pope in the crosshairs of his Browning 9mm pistol. The idea of a possible terrorist plot, however, immediately dissipated under the pressure of having to update Vatican Radio listeners on the surreal atmosphere that had descended on St. Peter's Square.

"We repeat that there were no scenes of panic, we repeat that the people - the thousands of people - are still, they are still petrified in their places, they perhaps still do not believe what they have seen. Many stretcher-bearers went among the people..."

"I myself could not find the words..."

As he continues in his account, Nardacci still knows nothing about the complex surgical operation underway at Policlinico Gemelli, nor that the Pope " in agony [...] stopped on the threshold of death," as Pope John Paul II himself would write in a message to the Italian bishops in 1994. And yet his chronicle, interrrupted only by the need to catch his breath, for a moment has a tone of compassion:

"We do not yet know the seriousness of the wounds suffered by Pope John Paul II; John Paul II who - we repeat - has done nothing but invite to pacification, invite to prayer..."

At this point, the announcement of the attack is broadcast from the loudspeakers. Nardacci falls silent and invites the listeners to concentrate on those words, which provide the first official version of the fact and encourages them to pray for the Pope's salvation. Nardacci resumes after a moment, and now the chronicle of the facts is mixed with the chronicle of personal impressions:

"Obviously, the emotion was strong, it affected everyone a bit. I myself did not believe that those shots were gunshots, that they were bullets exploded against the person of Pope John Paul II. We obviously felt our hearts accelerate and at the beginning, I myself could not find the words to describe..."

A sincere, human admission... and then, once again, the professional resumed the radio report that he had never imagined doing, and which, in spite of everything, he brought to a conclusion:

"For those who were listening at the moment, I repeat that the Holy Father suffered a terrorist attack, he was shot at by a few gunshots and collapsed in the open car from which he had already shaken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hands. The Holy Father, as we said before, had always abandoned himself confidently among the crowd, and no one could have foreseen this dramatic epilogue of this general audience of May 13, 1981. Around St. Peter's — perhaps you will also hear them from the microphone — we hear the cars of the security forces, probably the manhunt will have already begun if the attacker has not been arrested, if he has not been caught: I am not able to tell you. I am standing at one of the large windows of St. Peter's Basilica, so I have a view of the entire square..."

From Gemelli hospital to the world

As Nardacci's words unfolded — and they would literally go around the world — Vatican Radio reacted immediately. Five minutes after the shots were fired, a communication was sent to all the editorial offices with the news of the attack. And within five minutes, the Nardacci's radio report was also broadcast with commentaries in several languages on the other Radio networks, connecting listeners with St. Peter's Square and then with the Gemelli Hospital. At the end of the report, the reporters for the various languages continued live, each in their own place, to give an update on the Pope's state of health, until he left the operating room. First-hand information from Gemelli was provided by the Director-General of the Radio, Father Roberto Tucci, who literally camped out in the antechamber of the operating theatre, where he reported on everything that had filtered out concerning John Paul II's condition. The delicate operation, led by Professor Francesco Crucitti, lasted five and a half hours, and not infrequently the news diffused by Father Tucci contrasted with that circulating on other media, which could not enjoy that privileged viewpoint for a chronicle that was already history in every single moment.

13 May 2021, 11:05