On May 10 1981 just one day before Pope John Paul II was shot he toured the facilities of the Vatican medical center and met with staff members. After the visit, a physician asked John Paul II if he would bless their new ambulance. The Holy Father did so with holy water and said, “I also bless the first person who will use this ambulance.” John Paul became the recipient of his own blessing, because he was the first patient to need it.
May 13 was a typical Wednesday for John Paul II as he descended to Saint Peter’s Square to participate in his weekly papal audiences.He climbed aboard the Popemobile and crisscrossed through Saint Peter’s Square, kissing babies and blessing the 20,000 pilgrims who had gathered to see him. At 5: 17 P.M., moments after blessing a two-year-old girl and handing her back to her elated parents, blasts from a 9mm semiautomatic pistol rang out. Pigeons throughout the square scattered skyward as John Paul fell backward into the arms of his secretary, Monsignor Dziwisz. One bullet fractured two bones in his left index finger and passed through his abdomen before exiting through his sacrum and coming to rest in the Popemobile. Another bullet grazed his right arm, and two American women in the crowd were injured.After the gunshots were fired, the Popemobile fled the scene and John Paul was transferred into the familiar ambulance. Dziwisz climbed beside him and could hear him praying, “O Maria, Madonna! Maria, Madonna!Madonna! [O Mary, my Mother].”
In Saint Peter’s Square, as the faithful were praying for his survival, a group of Polish pilgrims took an icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa and placed it beside the empty seat that the Holy Father would have sat upon during his audience. A gust of wind blew it over, and a bystander noticed the inscription on the back of the image, which had been written days or weeks earlier: “May Our Lady protect the Holy Father from Evil.” The ambulance sped through the streets of Rome, honking desperately because the siren had failed shortly after leaving the Vatican. The Pope was losing a great deal of blood, but managed to stay conscious until his arrival at the Gemelli Hospital. Because he was now in critical condition and unconscious, he was given last rites and surgery was performed. Thankfully, a surgical room had been prepared and most of the staff was already in place because an Italian soccer player had been scheduled for an operation—which could now afford to wait. The surgeon, Professor Francesco Crucitti, rushed from across town and began the operation. He discovered severe internal bleeding due to a perforated colon and five wounds to the intestines. After making the initial incision, he noted, “I saw blood everywhere. There were some six pints of blood in the abdomen.” Considering that the average adult male only has ten pints of blood, the medical team feared the worst, later admitting that they did not believe the Pope would survive. John Paul, however, said that after he was shot, he had a premonition that the wound would not be fatal. After sponging up the blood, the doctors noticed that the path of the bullet missed the aorta by millimeters, which would have meant certain death. After a blood transfusion and five hours of surgery, the Holy Father’s condition stabilized. He woke up early the next morning with a broken tooth, a result of the hasty administration of anesthesia. He took a brief rest, and then upon awaking again, wanted to ask something but was wearing a mask. Dziwisz lifted it, and because John Paul thought it was still the previous day, asked if they had recited Compline (night prayer) yet.
John Paul remained hospitalized at Gemelli for three weeks before returning to the Vatican. However, two weeks after his homecoming, his condition worsened and he returned to the hospital to receive treatment for a cytomegalovirus infection that had been caused by a tainted blood transfusion. For the next fifty-six days, he lived at Gemelli under the watchful care of a team of zealous physicians. John Paul was eager to return to the Vatican, but remained in good spirits about needing to negotiate with those who wanted to make medical decisions on his behalf. Across the hall from his room was a meeting space where the doctors would convene to discuss his treatment. He playfully referred to the gathering as “the Sanhedrin.” He would inquire, “What did the Sanhedrin say to-day?” In time, his infection cleared, but a second surgery was required to repair the colostomy that had been performed because of the damage the bullet inflicted on his digestive system. The doctors wanted to postpone the operation until October, but he insisted that he was well enough to endure it. He met with them and gave them an impromptu half-hour speech about the proper relationship between a patient and his caregivers. During it, he gently reminded them that the patient must never be viewed as an object of treatment, but rather as the subject of his illness. He also reiterated the importance and necessity of dialogue between physicians and their patients. Whatever he said must have worked, because he set the date for his operation for August 5 (the feast of Our Lady of the Snows) and he was back home in the Vatican on the fourteenth, in time for the feast of Mary’s Assumption the following day.
Although John Paul forgave his assailant in the ambulance moments after being shot, he wanted to meet with Agça in prison to forgive him. The Pope made the trip to Rome’s Rebibbia Prison in December 1983 and spent more than three hours ministering to hundreds of prisoners. He did not learn much about Agça’s motives during their private conversation, which lasted more than twenty minutes. John Paul believed the assassin did not act independently, but was commissioned to carry out the act. He later wrote, “I think it was one of the final convulsions of the arrogant ideologies unleashed during the twentieth century.” But the would-be killer’s motive wasn’t the topic of their discussion. Instead, Agça was astonished that the Pope survived, because he knew the shot was mortal. Agça never apologized, but wanted only to know about the third part of the secret of Fatima. He asked, “I know I was aiming right. I know that the bullet was a killer. So why aren’t you dead?” John Paul knew the answer in his heart, which he had explained to others: “One hand shot, and another guided the bullet.” Agça was bewildered by whatever powers preserved the life of the Pope, and expressed fear that the “goddess of Fatima” would seek vengeance to “get rid of him.” John Paul allayed his fears and assured him that our Lady had forgiven him, too.
However, John Paul was disinterested in the details of the investigations into who may have plotted his demise. He said, “It doesn’t interest me; because it was the devil who did this thing. And the devil can conspire in a thousand ways, none of which interest me.” During his visit to Fatima in 1982, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his assassination attempt, another attempt was made on his life, which wasn’t made public until after the Holy Father passed away in 2005. As he was walking toward the altar during a candlelight procession, a priest stabbed him with a bayonet. All papal biographies prior to 2005 state that the man “attempted” to stab the Holy Father, but none realized that he succeeded. John Paul didn’t appear to be wounded, and even turned to bless the man who attacked him, as security forces pulled the assailant away. The Holy Father finished the prayer service without others noticing his wound. After returning to his room after the event, his aides noticed the blood on his cassock. His attacker, Father Juan María Fernández Krohn of Spain, was an ultraconservative who opposed the reforms that were taking place within the Church after the Second Vatican Council and thought that John Paul was conspiring with communists to destroy the Church. He had been ordained in the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) but left the priesthood after the attack and was treated for mental illness. Despite this second attempt on the Pope’s life, he continued for more than two decades to walk among his people, refusing to live in fear.
The Holy Father had more brushes with death than most Catholics realize. Perhaps his first close encounter was during his youth when his thirteen-year-old friend Bogusław Banas jokingly picked up a revolver and aimed it at him, saying, “Hands up, or I’ll shoot!” Not knowing the firearm was loaded, he pulled the trigger. He recalled, “It was pointing straight at Karol, and it’s a marvel I didn’t kill him. The bullet missed him by a hair’s breadth and broke a window.” Following this incident, Wojtyła survived a gauntlet of threats to his life under the Nazi and communist occupations of Poland. Many years later, when he was told that Sarajevo was unsafe for him to visit, he replied, “If missionaries, bishops, and nuncios take risks, why shouldn’t the Pope take them, too?” His keepers wanted him at least to wear a bulletproof vest, but he declined. He added, “the shepherd always has to be in the middle of his flock, even at the cost of his own life.” When the Vatican security team encouraged him and everyone in his entourage to wear them on their trip to Nicaragua, he retorted, “If any in my entourage wish to wear a bulletproof vest, they need not accompany me on this visit. We are in the hands of God and we will be protected by Him.” In Pakistan, before the Pope arrived to celebrate Mass in 1981, a terrorist died when his bomb exploded prematurely at the entrance to the stadium,a bomb meant to end John Paul’s life.On two other occasions, men with knives were arrested while lying in wait for the Holy Father in crowds. Plots were also foiled in Venezuela, Austria, Italy, the Ivory Coast, and even Poland.
One of the most significant papal assassination attempts was thwarted less than a week before the Pope landed in the Philippines to celebrate World Youth Day in 1995. On the evening of January 6, Manila police responded to a call to investigate a fire on the sixth floor of the Doña Josefa Apartments—less than a block from the papal nuncio’s residence, where John Paul was scheduled to stay. Smoke was billowing from the window and the residents reported an unusual scent. By the time the authorities arrived, the two tenants from Unit 603 had fled and the fire had subsided. When the police entered the apartment, they discovered that one of the residents had accidentally ignited the fire while mixing chemicals in the kitchen. The apartment was a live-in bomb factory in which investigators discovered sulfuric acid, nitroglycerin, and a host of other chemicals, along with wires, funnels, fuses, a pair of pipe bombs, and an Arabic manual for creating liquid bombs. They also found a Rosary, a crucifix, a Bible, a photo of John Paul, and maps of the routes on which he was soon to travel through the streets of Manila. A voicemail from a local tailor was left on the phone, saying that the cassock that was ordered was ready for a final fitting. However, the “intelligence gold mine” was the discovery of a laptop and four discs that were filled with elaborate terrorist plots and contact information. Altogether, the police confiscated enough evidence to fill three police vans. Thanks to the accidental fire, international terrorist experts were alerted to a three-phase plot, code-named “Bojinka.” It was reported that phase one was to have a bomber dressed in a priest’s cassock slip into the papal entourage and murder the Pope with a bomb on his way to the San Carlos Seminary in Makati City. Phase two was to be launched less than two weeks after the Pope’s assassination, when terrorists were scheduled to plant bombs on eleven flights from Asia to the United States. The devices were timed to detonate almost simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean, killing four thousand passengers. The final phase of the operation was for a terrorist to crash an airplane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Division called the plot, “Extraordinarily ambitious, very complicated to bring off, and probably unparalleled by other terrorist operations that we know of.” Unlike some of the other assassins who failed, those behind this operation were not amateurs. One of the two men who lived in the apartment was Abdul Hakim Murad, who created the bomb that detonated under the World Trade Center in 1993, injuring more than one thousand people. The other man was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the World Trade Center bombing. At the time of the 1995 papal assassination attempt,he was a fugitive with a $ 2 million bounty on his head. His uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who masterminded the September 11 attacks, also lived in Manila at the time and helped plan “Bojinka.” Most of the money to fund the operation was wired to a bank account owned by a man who worked for an Islamic organization run by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law. Osama bin Laden said of the financier of the plot, Wali Khan Amin Shah, “He was nicknamed ‘The Lion.’ He is one of the best. We were good friends.” All the men were eventually captured and the terrorist plot to kill thousands was prevented.
Nine days after the providential apartment fire, John Paul peacefully celebrated Mass in Manila with between five and seven million Filipinos. It would not be long before the Pope’s life would again be threatened. Two years later, as his plane was approaching the airport in Bosnia, NATO officials warned that it was dangerous to land. He insisted that the visit continue, and an F-16 fighter jet escorted him to the runway for protection. The Holy Father was informed that a bomb had been discovered under a bridge he was scheduled to drive over one hour later. The device had been assembled from more than fifty pounds of plastic explosive and twenty antitank mines. The Pope asked, “Are there people waiting for me?” “Yes.” “Then I will go.” Four years later, when the Holy Father visited Syria in 2001, an Islamic terrorist group planned to have a female suicide bomber throw herself at the Popemobile in Damascus, then nearby snipers were to open fire after the detonation. On the eve of the trip, the CIA informed the Vatican, who provided the information to Syria’s secret service to prevent the attack.
Not surprisingly, John Paul had a strong devotion to his guardian angel—although it is fair to speculate that he probably had a legion of them! He said, “My Guardian Angel knows what I am doing. My faith in him, in his protective presence, continues to grow deeper and deeper.” Before deplaning in Turkey, a reporter asked him if he felt he was in danger. John Paul answered, “Love is stronger than danger.” He also spoke often of his absolute trust in the maternal protection of our Lady. Having read Saint Louis de Montfort’s classic True Devotion to Mary, he would have known that the great Marian saint promised that, “This powerful Queen of heaven would sooner dispatch millions of angels to help one of her servants than have it said that a single faithful and trusting servant of hers had fallen victim to the malice, number and power of his enemies.” Having the confidence of living under her mantle gave John Paul the courage to scold even the Sicilian Mafia, calling them to repent because God’s judgment would come upon them one day. The Mafia responded by damaging two Roman churches with bombs, including the Pope’s cathedral church, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. Considering the constant peril under which he lived, it is understandable why he considered himself to be an heir of Saint Paul.