· Vatican City ·

Forty Years Ago the Assassination Attempt on John Paul II

Among the last ones, behind the white jeep

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14 May 2021

It took time, years, before I could type that date correctly. Once, my fingers on the keyboard inverted the numbers of the day, another time they traded one letter for another in typing the name of the month. That day, 40 years ago, I was in Saint Peter’s Square and I was happy to be there, until what I thought would never happen happened.

I was little more than twenty years old, a correspondent in my first experiences of reporting on the Pope’s General Audience. Something our newspaper has continued to do and will resume doing as soon as — and let’s hope it’s soon — the health situation will allow the faithful to be present again.

Like so many other Wednesdays, I arrived in Saint Peter’s Square very early in order to calmly collect stories from pilgrims and the faithful. As always, the mood was festive: songs, prayers, a constant clamour in every language. There was also a small group of children from a Roman parish, holding colourful balloons in their hands.

At about 5:00 pm , from the area closest to the arch of the bells, an applause arose that rapidly infected the entire Square. The Pope had arrived and, standing on the white Fiat Campagnola, he offered his greeting along the barriers: two times around so that no one would go without his greeting and his blessing. I was among the last ones to follow the procession: I had been taught to be discrete, not to let my presence interfere with that exchange of affections that so many would keep among the most beautiful memories of their life.

Even the sun was smiling on Saint Peter’s Square. Then, the gunshots, the shouting, the jeep taking off at full speed. But we could no longer see the Pope standing up to greet.

We were on the side of the Square that faces the Bronze Door, not far from the area where earlier I had seen those children with balloons. I turned instinctively, thinking some of them had popped. Behind the barrier people screamed, they looked behind. I too started running in the direction the jeep went. By now we understood what had happened.

Under the Braccio di CarloMagno, at the post of the Order of Malta, which provided medical assistance during the Audiences, I found a telephone and tried to get in touch with the newsroom. I could see fear and disbelief on the faces of people passing nearby. Perhaps they too could see the same expression on my face, that of feeling suddenly orphaned.

It would be a long night. At Policlinico Gemelli, the hospital where the Pope had been taken, doctors attempted the impossible. In Saint Peter’s Square the people were still there, praying and hoping. In the newsroom we were preparing the extraordinary issue that would come out at 7:00 am with the first, comforting news that came from the hospital.

Ten years later, John Paul ii made a pilgrimage to Fatima, to renew his thanks to Mary. The newspaper sent me as a correspondent. That day too was 13 May and I was happy to be there.

Piero Di Domenicantonio