THE DAY THE POPE WAS SHOT
At the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, the personal secretary to Pope John Paul II gave this unprecedented first-person account May 13 of the day the Holy Father was shot.
He made the remarks, he said, “20 years from the day on which divine Providence, through the intercession of the Most Blessed Mother, saved the Holy Father from death at the hands of his assassin.” The first part of his text follows:
In Italy … May 1981 was a turbulent month.
The referendum on the abortion law was to take place and so a large demonstration had been planned in Rome by the Communist Party on 13 May. That same day, the Holy Father was to found the Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Pontifical Lateran University and to establish the Pontifical Council for the Family as an organ of the Holy See. …
On 13 May Prof. Jerome Lejeune from Paris, a world-famous expert on genetics and a great defender of life, had been invited by the Holy Father to lunch. At 5 o'clock in the afternoon the Pope was to hold the usual Wednesday General Audience.
At 5:17 p.m., during his second tour of the square, the shots fired at John Paul II were heard. Ali Mehmet Agca, a professional killer, had fired a pistol, injuring the Holy Father in the stomach, on the right cheek and in the index finger. A bullet passed through the Pope's body and fell between us. I heard two shots. The bullets hit another two people. I was spared, but their force was such that they could have passed through more people.
I asked the Holy Father:
“Where?” He answered: “In the stomach”.
“Does it hurt?” He answered: “It hurts.”
At that instant he began to collapse. Standing behind him, I was able to support him. He was drained of strength. It was a dramatic moment. Today I can say that at that instant an invisible power came into action, making it possible to save the life of the Holy Father who was in mortal danger.
There was no time to think, there was no doctor within reach. A single erroneous decision could have had catastrophic effects. We did not even attempt to give him first aid nor did we decide to take the injured Pope to his apartment.
Every minute was precious. We therefore transferred him to an ambulance in which there was also his personal doctor, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, and we rushed him to the Policlinico Gemelli [Gemelli Hospital]. On the way there the Holy Father was still conscious; he fainted on entering the hospital. As long as he could, he prayed in a whisper.
At the Polyclinic we met with consternation, which was not surprising! The injured Pope was first taken to a room on the 10th floor reserved for special cases, and from there he was immediately carried to the operating room. From that moment the doctors were burdened by an enormous responsibility.
The Mysterious Force
The surgeon, Professor Francesco Crucitti, played a special role. He confided to me later that he had not been on duty that day and was at home, but a mysterious force had impelled him to go to the hospital. On his way, he had heard on the radio the news of the attempt on the Pope's life. He immediately offered to perform the operation, especially since the head of surgery, Professor Castiglione, was in Milan [he arrived at the Gemelli towards the end of the operation].
Professor Crucitti was assisted by other doctors. The operating room was crowded. The situation was very serious. The Pope's body was suffering lack of blood and the blood for the transfusion turned out to be incompatible. However, some doctors at the Polyclinic who had the same blood group gave their blood without a qualm to save the Holy Father's life.
It was a serious situation. At a certain point, Dr. Buzzonetti turned to me, asking me to administer the Anointing of the Sick since the patient was in grave danger: His blood pressure was falling, and his heartbeat very faint.
The blood transfusion restored him to a condition in which it was possible to begin surgery, which was extremely complicated. The operation lasted five hours and 20 minutes. From minute to minute, however, his hopes of survival increased.
A great many people flocked to the Polyclinic—cardinals who worked in the Curia. (Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Secretary of State, was absent because he was traveling in the United States.) Italian politicians also came, including Italy's President, Sandro Pertini, who stayed beside the Holy Father until 2 a.m. Indeed, he did not want to leave until the Pope left the operating room. The President's conduct was touching, and far from any kind of calculation.
The heads of the Italian political parties also arrived: Piccoli, Forlani, Craxi, Berlinguer [the head of Italy's Communist Party] and others. I add in the margin that Berlinguer cancelled the pro-abortion demonstration which had been scheduled for the evening of 13 May.
After the operation the Holy Father was taken to the recovery room. The doctors feared infection and other complications. When he came to, the Holy Father asked: “Have we said Compline?”
It was the day after the assassination attempt. For two days the Pope was in great pain, but his hopes of life were increasing. He remained in intensive care until 18 May.
Our Lady at His Side
On the first day after the operation, the Holy Father received Holy Communion, and in the following days, he concelebrated the Eucharist in bed.
There began to be talk of an international medical consultation on which Cardinal Macharski insisted.
On Sunday morning, 17 May, the Holy Father recorded a short reflection for the Regina Caeli. It consisted of words of thanks for the prayers of many of the faithful, of forgiveness for the would-be assassin, and of entrustment to Our Lady. The attempt on his life had gathered the Church and the world around him. This was the first fruit of his suffering.
Poland watched on bended knee. In Krakow the young people's unforgettable “White March” took place.
The Gemelli Polyclinic was besieged by journalists, ecclesiastical and lay figures and thousands of people, ordinary folk. They came to the Pope with love. Telegrams arrived from all over the world—in the first few days more than 15,000 were counted.
That same day the specialists arrived: two doctors from the United States, one from France, one from Germany, one from Spain and one from Krakow. Their diagnosis of the Holy Father's health and the progress of his medical treatment was positive.
A week after the attempt on his life, we sang the Te Deum.
People began insistently to associate the date of the attack with the apparitions of Fatima. The rumor of a miraculous healing through the inter-cession of Our Lady of Fatima became more and more widespread. As soon as he felt stronger, the Holy Father began to accept visits, especially from his collaborators, the cardinals, but also from the representatives of other religions. We would normally celebrate Mass at 6 p.m., and then sing the litanies of the month of May with our sisters. In the meantime, we were receiving news from Warsaw that the Primate [Cardinal Stefan] Wyszynski was dying.
The Death of a Friend
The Pope was intensely involved in those last moments.
On 24 May—by telephone via Father Gozdziewz—he conveyed his greeting and his blessing to him. The following day, at 12:15 p.m., the Holy Father spoke to the dying primate for the last time. Their conversation was brief. I remember the words: “I send you my blessing and a kiss.”
On 27 May, the Holy Father tape-recorded his address to the pilgrims of Piekary Slaskie. However, he felt tired and complained of a pain in his heart. The patient's condition was deteriorating. He was subjected to a careful checkup. Cardiologists monitored him all night long. Heart problems, as the doctors explained, had occurred because of a minor pulmonary embolism which was gradually reabsorbed.
Day by day the worrying symptoms disappeared from the electrocardiogram.
On 28 May—the Solemnity of the Lord's Ascension—his state of health improved, but his hospital stay had to be extended. Cardinal Wyszynski died on that day at 4:40 a.m. His death did not come as a surprise but was deeply distressing to us all. We heard the official news of it at about 10 a.m.
However, Father Piasecki had privately announced it to us at 6.30 a.m. I told the Holy Father a little later. He was filled with sorrow at the news.
On 30 May, the Pope met Cardinal Casaroli and gave him the letter with the text to be read at the Primate's funeral. The Secretary of State took part on behalf of the Holy Father who would have so liked to participate personally.
On Sunday, 31 May, the Holy Father recorded his address for the recitation of the Regina Caeli. His voice was already stronger. At 5 p.m. he took part in Cardinal Wyszynski's funeral by listening to the Vatican Radio broadcast. During the funeral liturgy, he celebrated his own Mass at the Gemelli Polyclinic.
After the Eucharist he said: “I shall miss him. We were bound by friendship. I needed his presence.”
The Struggle to Survive
On the morning of 1 June, as always, the Pope dedicated himself to meditation and prayers. He then submitted to the medical examinations. In addition to the doctors of the clinic, a Vatican doctor was constantly present; every detail was followed by Dr. Buzzonetti. Later the Holy Father received official visits and visits from friends. On that day, after evening Mass, we began the functions in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The Holy Father went home on 3 June. We celebrated Mass at 12:30 p.m. Before leaving the Polyclinic, the Pope received Prof. Lazzati, Rector of the Milan's Catholic University, and, in the afternoon, the doctors and paramedical. He left for the Vatican at 7 p.m. His meeting with the Curia and residents of the papal palace was moving. The Holy Father's presence filled the Apostolic See with new life. Thus ended the first stage after the attack and the dramatic moments of his struggle to survive.
- June 24-30, 2001