‘I was in shock’: Polish cardinal recalls assassination attempt on St. John Paul II 40 years on

Pope John Paul II collapses after being shot on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square Pope John Paul II collapses after being shot on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square./ Audycje Radiowe/YouTube.

A cardinal has recalled the moment that St. John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square 40 years on from the attempted assassination.

The Polish pope collapsed into the arms of the then Msgr. Stanisław Dziwisz when he was struck by four bullets on May 13, 1981.

“Holding the slumping and heavily bleeding Holy Father, I was in shock; but I knew we had to act to save his life,” recalled Cardinal Dziwisz on the 40th anniversary of the incident.

“St. John Paul II, despite the pain, remained calm, entrusted himself to God and Mary, and already on the way to the hospital, losing consciousness, said to me that he forgives the assassin.”

The pope was standing in a Jeep greeting a crowd of around 10,000 people when would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca shot him at close range using a 9mm Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol.

Bleeding profusely, John Paul II was rushed to hospital with two bullets lodged in his lower intestine. The other two bullets struck his left index finger and right arm.

Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime personal secretary, said he believed that John Paul II was targeted because of his outspoken defense of human rights.

“The assassination attempt against John Paul II was the consequence of his steadfast demand for the respect of human rights, especially in the context of enslavement by totalitarianism,” he said.

“At that time, such a pope was inconvenient for many.”

Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, pictured in Kraków, Poland, March 4, 2016. / Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.
Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, pictured in Kraków, Poland, March 4, 2016. / Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.

John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyła, survived the Nazi occupation of Poland and helped to lead the Church’s resistance to the oppressive communist regime that followed.

“He himself came from Poland, a country that experienced the atrocities of Nazism and communism in the 20th century. He understood perfectly well the harm caused by the totalitarian violence used by authorities against individual citizens and whole societies,” the 82-year-old cardinal said.

“This is why he was steadfast in demanding that the rights and dignity of every human being be respected. He paid a high price for it, but the assassination attempt did not interrupt his mission.”

The shooting took place on May 13, the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima and the anniversary of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s first appearance to the three shepherd children at Cova da Iria in Portugal in 1917.

A plaque marks the spot in St. Peter's Square where St. John Paul II was shot on May 13, 1981. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.
A plaque marks the spot in St. Peter's Square where St. John Paul II was shot on May 13, 1981. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

John Paul II credited Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life, saying that “one hand pulled the trigger, another guided the bullet.”

On the first anniversary of the assassination attempt, John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima to thank Mary for saving his life.

More in Europe

The day before, May 12, 1982, Spanish priest Juan María Fernández y Krohn stabbed the pope with a bayonet at Fatima before being detained by security.

Polish Catholics will mark the 40th anniversary of the attack in St. Peter’s Square with a Mass at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in Polanica-Zdrój Sokołówka, southwest Poland, at 5 p.m. local time. The Mass will be live-streamed by EWTN Poland.

Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, said: “We will be there together to give thanks, through the hands of Mary, for the miracle of the Holy Father’s survival and for all the graces that the Lord God has sent us through the person of our great and holy compatriot."

Dziwisz noted that after John Paul II recovered from the 1981 attempt on his life, he continued to pursue his mission with courage, traveling all over the world and meeting countless people.

The pope publicly forgave Ağca days after the shooting. In 1983, he visited the Turkish gunman at Rome’s Rebibbia Prison.

“He repeatedly said that his life was saved thanks to Mary. He visited the assassin in prison and spoke with him for a while,” Dziwisz reflected.

“The pope’s enemies did not succeed in stopping him with violence; he had a mission entrusted by God, which he continued to the end.”

(Story continues below)