Friday, May 13, 2011

"It Sounded Like Firecrackers": Four Bullets and a "Motherly Hand," 30 Years On

Thirty years ago today, prior to the General Audience on this feast of Our Lady of Fatima, four shots failed to kill the Pope, but shook the world nonetheless....

As a friend who happened to be at the edge of the Square that day recently recalled the moment, "It sounded like firecrackers. And nobody knew what happened -- I thought 'They wouldn't have fireworks at the audience'....

"Then the car sped away, and word just spread. And nobody left."

And as the crowd stayed, a picture of the "Black Madonna," Our Lady of Czestochowa -- the patroness of Poland -- was placed on the empty papal chair, as an American prelate on hand spontaneously stepped to the microphone to lead the Rosary. Before the five decades were out, he was able to report that, even for his injuries, John Paul II wasn't in grave danger and had a solid outlook for recovery.

(In the weeks before today's commemoration, the story returned to the headlines as the bishop who led the prayers -- retired New York auxiliary Anthony Mestice, the Big Apple's first prelate of Italian roots -- died at 87.)

* * *
Many, of course, have thought the Polish Pope's rebound to be the end of the story. Such was the man and his message, however, that it would be anything but.

On its own, the assassination attempt -- and John Paul's recovery -- quickly became part of now-Blessed's legend... but the chapter's heft would only go on to be burnished by two key postscripts.

First, precisely a year from the incident, saying that he wished to "give thanks to the Madonna for having saved me from danger," John Paul went to Fatima for the feast, leaving one of the bullets to be placed in the crown of the Virgin (above), depicted as she appeared there 65 years before. Eighteen years later on the same feast, as he beatified two of the three visionaries of Fatima, the portion of the previously-unreleased "Third Secret" was disclosed which spoke of a "bishop clothed in white" who "falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a burst of gunfire."

From the day of the attempt, John Paul saw himself as that bishop, attributing the "motherly hand" first revealed in the Portuguese pastures from averting the vision's total fulfillment.

And lastly -- perhaps most powerfully of all -- two years after that fateful Wednesday in the square, the Pope went to a Roman jail to visit the perpetrator of the attack, Mehmet Ali Agca, not just to forgive his would-be killer, but to "declare [his] brotherhood" with him.

In subsequent years, not only would the Vatican support clemency for Ali Agca -- who was sentenced to life in prison -- but John Paul ensured that he would meet and embrace the man's mother and siblings when they came to see him.

And Pope or not, there's a lesson in that -- in this day and what followed -- for all of us.