Thirty years after the assassination attempt on John Paul II
Much more than meets the eye
Thirty years after the assassination attempt that almost cost John Paul II his life, the time has come to attempt an historical assessment of the event, and not just re-visit the anguish and distress of those moments, but to shed light on who was behind it. It is important to understand the profound meaning of this event, not only for its significance in the history of the 20th century, but especially its significance in the history of the Church and more generally in salvation history.
The assassination attempt of the Pope, together with the one which killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy, represent the highest level which terrorism reached in the 20th century. The attempt on John Paul II’s life – preceded by other efforts which fortunately failed, on the part of deranged persons, very different from the perfect terrorism of Agca and his eventual accomplices – signifies also, though in a purely negative way, the importance of the visible head of the Catholic Church in the last century.
Precisely in the moment of greatest secularization in the West, the figure of the Roman Pontiff assumed an increasingly important role at the international level, becoming one of the voices most listened to – and consequently most criticized and opposed – in the world. The assassination attempt, therefore, can be considered proof of this growing importance that influenced the entire 20th century, reaching its peak with the Polish Pope, a central figure not only for his spiritual and moral weight but also for his political role in the fight against communism.
As has been widely recognized, Wojtyla lived his role with unique charismatic charm, which in the first phase of his pontificate was also heightened by his physical body. A body offered to the media that could become, as happened, an attractive target for terrorism: the Pope who skied and swam, taken down in blood. The impact could not have been more powerful.
Without a doubt, however, the way in which the assassination attempt was remembered, and in which it became an historical event, is due mostly to the personal initiative of John Paul II, and in particular to his less-than-tepid way of favoring the investigation, his disinterest in knowing more about who was behind the attempt to kill him. A disinterest well represented by the final destination of the third bullet, the existence of which was only confirmed on the first anniversary of the attempt, when the Pope had it placed in the crown of the Madonna of Fatima.
Wojtyla well knew who wanted him dead, just as he had always known he was in danger, but he was well aware that behind human decisions, there is always more than meets the eye and he wanted to shift the attention towards this transcendent reality to find the real reason for the event. There were multiple forces opposing his open battle to bring Christianity back to the center of attention, to re-open souls to the teaching of the Gospels, and one could not reduce the assassination attempt to a communist political plot or an anti-Christian operation of Islamic fundamentalism.
In fact, from the beginning the Pope was very clear in his critical stance against the devaluing of human life which was spreading in countries of Christian origin and against the materialism and hedonism of these countries. He was established therefore as an antagonistic figure not only of communist regimes but also of a misguided sense of modernization in Democratic countries, making him a dangerous adversary for many.
The unresolved mystery of who ordered the assassination attempt – the solution to which, as he wrote in his testament, was before everyone’s eyes – and the evident intervention of a miraculous nature which caused the deflection of the shots fired by a very skilled killer just steps away from his target, and the subsequent saving of the Pope, have given this event a strong spiritual significance. A significance confirmed also by the coincidence of the date with the first apparition of the Virgin of Fatima, in 1917, whose message was dedicated to the 20th century and in particular to the rise of communism.
The Marian intervention could not but confirm a certainty for Christians: even if the forces of evil are powerful and dangerous, they will not prevail. This interpretation on the one hand attributed the negative forces in play to more than just a specific group and on the other hand, opened hearts to hope by lifting the assassination attempt from an apparent historical contingency and placing it in the history of salvation. In this way, the battle that the Pope was combating could become even more the battle of all Christians. And the call which he repeated more than once to be not afraid and to open the doors wide to Christ, thanks to his example, became something that all could follow, not just the most conscientious and courageous elite.
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