J.M.J. Today is the Memorial of Our Lady of Fatima.
May she help us as we increasingly show her our more profound love and gratitude!
A beautiful reflection on the happenings of May 13, 1981--the day on which Saint John Paul II was shot--was published in 2001 by the then Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who served as the Holy Father's Secretary.
This text written by Cardinal Dziwisz originally appeared in the May 30, 2001 issue of the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano (pages 10-12) and was reprinted with the gracious permission of Dr. Carlo De Lucia, Editorial Secretary.
May you be spiritually enriched by the moving words of Cardinal Dziwisz, who is presently the Archbishop of Krakow.
"13 May 1981"
Conference of Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz
for Honorary Doctorate
from University of Lublin
(On Sunday, 13 May 2001, the Catholic University of Lublin conferred a Doctorate “honoris causa” in theology upon Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, titular Bishop of San Leone, Adjunct Prefect of the Papal Household.
We are publishing the address which the Bishop gave for the occasion on that special date: “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.”)
Dear Magnificent Rector, Distinguished Guests,
Today’s meeting is taking place on a very special occasion. Indeed, today marks 20 years since the day on which Divine Providence, through the Blessed Mother’s intercession, saved the Holy Father from death at the hands of a killer.
Neither we, nor especially, this university, which boasts the prestige of having had Pope John Paul II as a professor, can be left indifferent by the date of 13 May.
May this ceremony therefore be an opportunity to relive the event we witnessed. In this context it seems right to fit today’s meeting into the twofold dimension of “gift and mystery”, before which we must bow our heads and respect their deep value. The gift is the Holy Father’s life, which continues to bear fruit for the Church and the world; the mystery is the attempt on his life, which we are trying to see in the perspective of Divine Providence’s saving designs, despite the drama we lived through.
I asked to be spared the laudatio. However I thank Prof. Nagy for his words, presented in the form of a commemoration. There will not, however, be a lesson for us, but rather a testimony, the testimony of someone who only just touched on the mystery in which perhaps he was an instrument in God’s plans (I find it hard to recognize this) but who on the other hand has certainly been an eyewitness of how that gift of the Holy Father’s life has been lived in the course of 20 years.
I would like to delve into history, recent but nonetheless important, for certain events concerning the date of 13 May 1981. They are deeply impressed on my heart and only today have I mustered the courage to speak of them publicly. I know that it is impossible to tell the whole story or to understand it fully. Nonetheless, I consider them worth recalling. I hope that mentioning the details of those events, generally unknown, will serve not so much to satisfy curiosity but above all to help us see how the Holy Father’s life was truly saved by a wonderful grace of God, for which we must be constantly grateful.
For Poland, the year 1981 was a year of social and political tensions, but it also heralded new times. The Holy Father’s words at Gniezno, during the 1979 pilgrimage, on respect for dignity and human rights and the rights of nations and societies to freedom, sovereignty and self-determination made a deep impression on the common popular conscience. Echoes of the papal homily during the Mass that inaugurated the pontificate were still ringing out: “Do not be afraid, open wide the doors to Christ!”
In Italy too, 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 Apostolic See.
On the evening of 11 May, at the Pope’s request, I visited in his home in Poland Cardinal Wyszynski. The “Primate of the Millennium” was permanently confined to his bed by a serious illness. He kept me for a long conversation during which he wanted to convey his last wishes to the Holy Father. He also wrote him a letter. He knew that he was dying. He seemed very frail to me and completely abandoned to God’s will. He rejoiced in the ceremony, announced for the following 8 June, for the act of entrustment of the Church and the world to the Blessed Mother by the Holy Father with the Bishops. The Primate longed to take part in this act, for which he had done his utmost. However, because of his state of health, he could only appoint a delegation that came to Rome.
I returned from Poland the day after my visit to the Cardinal. 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 five 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:
“In the stomach.”
“Does it hurt?”
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 Gemelli Polyclinic. On the way there the Holy Father was still conscious; he fainted on entering the Polyclinic. 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 surgeon, Prof. 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 Polyclinic. 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, Prof. Castiglione was in Milan; he arrived at the Gemelli towards the end of the operation. Prof. 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 twenty 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, with the Italian 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: Picoli, Forlani, Craxi, Berlinguer 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.
On the first day after the operation the Holy Father received Holy Communion, and in three 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 of 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 were positive. A week after the attempt of his life we sang theTe Deum.
People began insistently to associate the date of the attack with the apparitions of Fatima. The rumour of a miraculous healing through the intercession 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 Wyszynski was dying. The Pope was intensely involved in those last moments. On 24 May—by telephone via Fr. Gozdziewcz—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 Piekaryt 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 check up. 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 electro-cardiogram.
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, Fr. 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.”
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 honour 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 Catholic University, and, in the afternoon, the doctors and paramedics. 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.
The Holy Father continued to be under the care of the Gemelli Polyclinic and Vatican doctors. On Friday, 5 June, he recorded his address for the Solemnity of Pentecost to which the Bishops of the whole world were invited. The occasion was the 1,600th anniversary of the First Council of Constantinople and the 1,550th of the Council of Ephesus. During these celebrations the Pope—in the spirit of the message of Fatima—wanted to entrust to the Most Holy Mother the Church and the world and, in a special way, those countries which, more than all the others, were expecting this act.
On Pentecost Sunday, 7 June, Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, Dean of the College of Cardinals, presided at the liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica. A recording of the Holy Father’s homily was broadcast, and at the end of the liturgy he himself came to the basilica’s internal loggia to impart his Blessing, to the great joy of all. The address that preceded the Regina Caeli was also reproduced from a tape recording. The Holy Father appeared at the window of his private study only to impart his Blessing to the large crowd gathered on St. Peter’s Square.
The important ceremony during which the Holy Father entrusted the Church and the world to the Mother of God took place in St. Mary Major in the afternoon. Delegations of Bishops from every continent took part. The words of this act prepared by the Pope were broadcast by Vatican Radio. The Holy Father followed the whole ceremony on television. Cardinal Otunga of Nairobi presided, and the procession was led by Cardinal Corripio of Mexico.
Thus was fulfilled the great desire of the Polish Bishops and of the Primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, expressed during the Second Vatican Council.
However on Tuesday, 9 June, the Pope’s fever returned, and he had a general relapse. Analyses and examinations began in order to find the cause. He felt acute pain and began to lose his strength. In addition, the constant examinations were exhausting and had no concrete results. His temperature soared to 40 degrees, where it remained for days, increasingly sapping his strength. Another two professors were summoned to join the medical team: Prof. Giunchi, a specialist in internal medicine, and the famous surgeon, Prof. Fegiz.
On Sunday, 14 June, the Holy Father reappeared at the window for the prayer of the Regina Caeli.
On 17 June, the Holy Father the Pope briefly met the [Polish] farmer’s union Solidarnosc.
The medical team, concerned by his state of health and even fearing for his life decided that he should return to the Gemelli Polyclinic. He was so weak that he could not read the breviary on his own.
At 4:30 p.m. on 20 June, the Pope was once again transferred to the Polyclinic for more precise examinations, which did not immediately reveal the causes of the patient’s condition.
On 22 June infiltrations in the lungs became apparent but gradually disappeared. On that day for the first time the cytomegalovirus was identified as the cause of those very serious complications. This discovery made it possible to apply the appropriate treatment.
At the Gemelli Polyclinic the Pope continued dealing with many official matters. In the day he would receive his co-workers, including the present Nuncio and Mons. Rakoczy, who then constituted the Polish Section of the Secretariat of State.
At the time the appointment of the new Primate of Poland was imminent. This was uppermost in the Holy Father’s mind and heart. After a thorough consultation by the Bishops, Bishop Jozef Glemp was chosen. Cardinal Franciszek Macharski arrived in Rome. So did Bishop Jozef Glemp.
On 6 July the Holy Father wrote a letter to the Church in Poland concerning the new Primate’s appointment.
The Pope’s state of health had so improved that the doctors began to think about the second operation, to close the colostomy. However, most of the professors suggested delaying the operation in consideration of the patient’s enfeebled condition. The Holy Father felt that the operation should not be postponed. He wanted to leave the hospital completely cured.
On 10 July, his condition began once again to deteriorate, with progressive inflammation of the lungs. In the doctors’ opinion, these serious symptoms and complications were still being caused by the presence of the cytomegalovirus. I must stress here the great dedication and concern of the doctors of the Gemelli Polyclinic and of the Vatican. We are particularly grateful to the nurses and Sisters of the Sacred Heart, faithful handmaids of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
On 16 July, the day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the illness took a decisive turn and a general improvement in his condition was recorded. The Holy Father faced the daily problems with renewed vitality; he began to work out the programme for the forthcoming Synod with Archbishop Jozef Tomko and to follow the Curia’s work, every day receiving Cardinal Casaroli, Archbishop Martinez and other heads of dicasteries. He once again turned his attention to political events and particularly the situation in Poland.
On 20 July the would-be assassin’s trial began. The matter was a sensitive one for the Holy Father and for the Apostolic See. The Pope had forgiven him, but the instruments of Italian justice had to initiate the procedures required by the law.
On 23 July the Holy Father took part in the medical consultation during which he expressed his own point of view on the treatment and asked the doctors to take it into account. He firmly insisted on having the operation, so as to be able to return home fully functioning. The doctors seemed embarrassed, but did not exclude the possibility of a second operation. It was Prof. Crucitti in particular that persuaded the others that it was appropriate to take the patient’s wishes into consideration.
The Holy Father was feeling better and better, although his physical resistance was still weak. Despite the hospital conditions, he worked without respite. His day began with the recitation of the Little Office in Honour of Our Lady and Morning prayers and meditation; then came the doctor’s visits, the recitation of the breviary, visits from guests—official visits and those which had not been planned. Of course he also met friends who arrived from Poland. The essential topics of the Church’s life and the prominent issues in the various fields of culture and science frequently recurred in his conversations.
In the evenings, the Holy Father concelebrated the Eucharist. A small group of guests always took part. Towards the end of his stay in the clinic, a crowd of pilgrims would wait outside the hospital: parish and folklore groups, choirs and individuals. The Pope would greet them from his window and impart his Apostolic Blessing to them.
On 31 July, the medical decision concerning the second operation was to be made. After a heated discussion, the date was fixed for 5 August. The Holy Father himself chose the day dedicated to Our Lady of Snows. The operation began at 7 a.m. and lasted an hour. Prof. Crucitti operated, assisted by the other professors. It was successful. Surgery brought the Holy Father true relief and allowed him a normal life. During the operation, his closest co-workers were celebrating Mass in the hospital chapel.
On 6 August, the patient could already take a few steps in his room. On that day, the Primate Jozef Glemp paid him a visit with Archbishop Bronislaw Dabrowski. They concelebrated Mass for Paul VI on the anniversary of his death.
In the days that followed, the Pope gradually recovered and there were no further complications.
On 10 August, the doctors began to speak of his discharge. The Holy Father was greeting the numerous pilgrims groups from his hospital window more and more often. In addition to his concern for the whole Church he was living intensely the situation in Poland, from which he was receiving news of the military maneuvers, of the convocation of the plenum of the party’s Central Committee.
On 13 August the doctors met and after the consultation wrote the bulletin concerning the end of the Holy Father’s hospital stay and his return home.
On the morning of 14 August, after prayers and adoration, the Pope spoke to the patients in the hospital and took his leave of the doctors and staff who had cared for him.
At the entrance of the Gemelli Polyclinic and in front of the building a large crowd had gathered, including nunerous journalists. The Holy Father said a last goodbye to the doctors and then returned to the Vatican by car. After crossing St. Peter’s Square, he entered the basilica. In the courtyard of St. Damasus, he told the Cardinals and Curia staff present: “I paid a visit to St. Peter to thank him for deigning to let his Successor survive. I visited the tombs of Paul VI and John Paul I, for there might well have been another tomb beside them.”
The Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, 15 August, was the first day after the assassination attempt on which the Holy Father could at last feel he had finished with medical and hospital treatment. Tens of thousands of people flocked to St. Peter’s Square to take part in the midday Angelus with him. That day marked the end of the great drama, during which the Holy Father was able to have a unique experience of the goodness, tender concern and protection of the Most Holy Mother. This conviction motivated and still today motivates him. When he returned to St. Peter’s Square to meet the faithful at the General Audience four months later, he thanked them all for their prayers and confessed: “Again I have become indebted to the Blessed Virgin and to all the Patron Saints. Could I forget that the event in St. Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to the poor little peasants has been remembered for over 60 years at Fatima in Portugal? For, in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet” (General Audience, 7 October, n. 6; L’Osservatore Romano [English edition], 12 October 1981, p. 3).
Gift and mystery.
I would say that the gift was the return: the Holy Father’s miraculous return to life and health. One mystery remains—in the human dimension—the attempt to kill him. In fact neither the trial nor the culprit’s lengthy imprisonment has shed light on it. I witnessed the Pope’s visit to Ali Agca in prison. The Pope had already publicly pardoned him in his very first address after the attack. I did not hear the prisoner utter a single word to ask forgiveness. He was only interested in the mystery of Fatima—troubled by the force that had got the better of him. In the Year of the Great Jubilee, the Holy Father sent a letter to the Italian President asking for Ali Agca’s release: this request—it is well known—was accepted by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. The Holy Father accepted the release of Ali Agca with relief. He had several times received his mother and his relatives and had often asked the prison chaplains about him.
The divine dimension of the mystery consists of this dramatic event, which took a heavy toll on the Holy Father’s health and strength, but at the same time was not without an effect on the content and fruitfulness of his apostolic ministry in the Church and in the world. I recall that in one conversation the Holy Father confessed: “This was a great grace of God. I see in this a similarity with the Primate’s imprisonment. Except that experience lasted three years, and this one . . . .”
In this case I do not think that it is an exaggeration to apply the ancient saying: “Sanguis martyrum semen christianorum” (The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians). Perhaps this blood was needed on St. Peter’s Square, on the site of the early Christians’ martyrdom. In this context, four thoughts spring to my mind.
There is no doubt that the first fruit of that bloodshed was the union of the entire Church in the great prayer for the Pope’s recovery. The pilgrims who had come for the General Audience and an ever increasing multitude of Romans prayed in St. Peter’s Square throughout the night that followed the attack. On the following days, Masses were celebrated and prayers offered for the Pope’s intentions in cathedrals, churches and chapels all over the world. In this regard, the Holy Father himself said: “It is difficult for me to think of all this without emotion, without deep gratitude to everyone, to all those who gathered in prayer on the day of 13 May, and to all those who persevered in it for all this time… I am grateful to Christ the Lord and to the Holy Spirit, who, through this event which took place in St. Peter’s Square on 13 May at 5:17 p.m., inspired so many hearts to common prayer.
“And thinking of this great prayer, I cannot forget the words of the Acts of the Apostles, referring to Peter: ‘earnest prayer was made to God by the Church’” (Acts 12:5) (General Audience, 7 October 1981; L’Osservatore Romano [English edition], 12 October 1981, p. 3 ).
During those days, kind wishes also arrived from many quarters which did not really have anything to do with the Church, from Heads of State, from the representatives of international organizations and from various political and social organizations across the world. It seems that the sentiments expressed at that time have contributed to this day to forming their opinion of the Holy Father as a moral authority in the world.
Concern for the Pope’s life and health was not only expressed by the Catholic Church, but also by Communities of other Christian denominations, and even other religions. I remember that the Secretariat for Christian Unity received hundreds of telegrams from their representatives. From Constantinople, a special envoy arrived from Patriarch Demetrius to express his profound participation in the sufferings of the Bishop of Rome. Telegrams also came from the Primate of the Anglican Communion and from the heads of many Protestant communities. I am deeply convinced that the Pope’s suffering made an enormous contribution to the work of Christian unity, to which he is so dedicated.
I have already said that for that day, now a memorable one, a large demonstration had been planned in Rome and sponsored by sectors which had declared themselves to be pro-abortion. The demonstration was revoked because of the attack. Nothing happens by chance in Divine Providence’s plans. Perhaps there that innocent blood and that desperate struggle for life were needed, to awaken in human consciences an awareness of life’s value and the will to preserve it from its conception to its natural death. The fact that both the Academy for life and the Institute for the Family at the Pontifical Lateran University were created during those days seems to confirm this insight. Independently of the effective state of laws and customs, with regard to the matter of respect for life in contemporary society, it can be said that on that day the commitment to the family of the Holy Father and the Church was given a new impetus and an existential motivation.
Of course we could delve more deeply into the mystery of the attack and the struggle for the life and safety of the Holy Father, mentioning other results which, today, 20 years later, we can identify. However, I am aware that its definitive meaning will remain hidden in the inscrutable desires of Divine Providence. I also wish to express my deep conviction that the blood poured out in St. Peter’s Square on 13 May, came to fruition with the springtime of the Church in the Year 2000. I never stop thanking God for this gift and for the mystery that he granted me to witness with my own eyes. At the end of this account, I would like to cite the words of Cardinal Wojtyla, from his poem "Stanislaw": “If words do not convert, blood will.”