On May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, at 17.17 one of the most serious and known attacks of our recent history takes place: a hitman, perhaps commissioned by still unidentified principals, shoots at close range at Pope John Paul II to kill him. Forty years after that tragic event, in the book «The Pope had to die. The history of the attack on John Paul II “(Edizioni San Paolo, pages 240, euro 22), Antonio Preziosi reconstructs that day with little-known or even unpublished details, analyzes the reasons and consequences of the gesture, highlighting all the news, historical and spiritual implications of the attack. The author tells some direct testimonies (such as those of Sister Letizia Giudici who “arrested” the terrorist Ali Ag˘ca or of Professor Renato Buzzonetti, the Pope’s doctor) and many details recalled by Cardinal Stanislao Dziwisz – former personal secretary of the Pope – and by many other witnesses. The story involves the reader as in a “film” that has a dual direction: a human (the instigators still obscure of the attack) and a supernatural (the hand that deflected the bullet saving the life of that Pope who that day “had to die “).
We publish the preface by Monsignor Rino Fisichella.
It is difficult to forget the date of May 13, 1981. Like a bolt from the blue, the news of the attack on John Paul II reached all corners of the earth in an instant. Thinking of killing a Pope is not an irrelevant fact. Of course, history has known many martyr popes, but in modern times no one has ever dared to follow in the footsteps of Nero and Diocletian, to name the most famous. At most, we meet with the arrogance of Napoleon and Hitler who, despite the gravity of the facts, did not go so far as to kill the Pope. his successor Pius VII. The second intended to take Pius XII prisoner, who replied that the Führer would lead Eugenio Pacelli into exile, certainly not the Pope.
The election of the Polish Karol Wojtyła as Peter’s successor had aroused great alarm in the diversified centers of dictatorial power of the then USSR. I remember in this regard a detail that was told to me by Prof. S. Grygiel, a great friend of John Paul II because he had been his student at the University of Lublin and that the Pope himself had wanted as a teacher at the John Paul II Institute for studies on marriage and family, founded on the day of the attack. The professor told me that after a few months from the election, in a conversation with the Pope he had informed him of strange suspicious movements that had occurred. The Pope simply said: «Have they already arrived? They wasted no time ». Who they were is easy to imagine. On the other hand, the cardinal archbishop of Krakow was kept well under control, like the majority of his priests and faithful, by the secret services of his country.
The pages we have in our hands are the desire not to make us forget the dramatic moments of the attack. Much has been written about it, and much more will have to be written to reach coherent conclusions. This book by Antonio Preziosi has the merit of placing the attack as a key to the reading of the entire pontificate, to highlight how much John Paul II saw in that event a “spiritual rebirth”. Preziosi proves to be an excellent interpreter: he analyzes the data, puts them in relation and tries to find a way out of the labyrinth in which the dramatic story is contained which still today shows unprecedented and often contradictory aspects. We meet with the most bizarre versions, built from time to time by Ali Ağca, intentionally created to take off the track and to offer his maniacal interventions a stage on which to play again as the protagonist, without realizing that the curtain is closed for him time ago. The words of forgiveness spoken by Saint John Paul II are like a tombstone because they carry with them the obligation to forget the hatred that moved the murderous hand.
In this context, Preziosi never tires of analyzing in great detail all the elements that emerge from the dossiers and testimonies, trying to find a trajectory even in the many coincidences to understand a broader plan than that described in the chronicles. To this, however, he adds a spiritual vision that greatly enriches these dense pages. On the other hand, it was John Paul II who wanted to give this event a reading of this intensity. It could not have been otherwise: “A hand wanted to kill; another hand deflected the killing blow ”. Once he reached the Chapel of the apparition in Fatima, the Pope said: “There are no simple coincidences in the designs of Providence”. The attack took place on the day of the first apparition of the Virgin in Fatima to Jacinta, Francesco and Lucia. John Paul II necessarily had to go beyond coincidences, because everything in his life spoke of a divine plan that little by little was being built.
The author moves with ease in reconstructing this path, because he belongs to that generation that found in John Paul II a solid and sure guide to give witness to their faith. St. Peter, Fatima, Collevalenza, Padre Pio, Sister Faustina … how many interconnected elements that help to compose the picture of Karol Wojtyła’s existence beyond mere coincidences! Everything can be explained because that man had a high sense of freedom and responsibility with which to respond to God’s call.
In reading these pages, I felt involved several times. I participated directly in some of the facts described and this allowed me to take part in decisive events: as far as my contribution is concerned, it is certainly an insignificant corollary, however, they have marked my existence indelibly.
On May 13, 1981, in the afternoon, with some students of the Liceo Virgilio – where I taught – I was at “Colle La Salle” in via dell’Imbrecciato, a school of the Brothers of the Christian Schools where I lived and carried out the ministry of chaplain. At the time I was also Assistant to the young people of Catholic Action in my Diocese of Rome and we had thought of an afternoon to be enjoyed together in joy. In the midst of the chatter and laughter comes the news of the attack. We all looked at each other in disbelief. Some young frères were with us and the fun immediately turned into a state of bewilderment.
I didn’t think too much and immediately decided to call Luigina and Claudio, diocesan youth leaders to organize a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square. I asked to involve the leaders of Communion and Liberation and other groups, to gather those who were available around the Obelisk in the center of the square for a prayer vigil. It was already well into the sunset, and throughout the evening we did not stop singing songs and prayers. The square was now empty and only we were animated by the desire to give a testimony of prayer for the Pope’s health. At a certain point, I saw that Msgr. G. Canestri, vicegerent of the diocese, was present on one side of the square with the rosary in his hand and his face very tense. I approached him, greeted him and invited him to come to the young people to pray with us. He thanked me affectionately and told me that he preferred to remain on the sidelines, he would continue to accompany us remaining in the silence of prayer and on the edge of the square. Towards the end of the prayer, the Deputy to the Secretariat of State, HE Eduardo Martínez Somalo, appeared in the square. He thanked us all with words that were not occasional, inviting us to pray, but reminding us that it was late in the evening and it was also advisable to return home. The disorientation, however, was such that no one knew what to do outside of praying.
The second circumstance described by the pages of Preziosi concerns the intention of Pope John Paul II to make public the “third secret” of Fatima. I cannot forget the phone call from HE Msgr. T. Bertone, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time, with whom he invited me to join him in the dicastery. He informed me of the Pope’s decision and of the need to accompany the publication of the “secret” with a theological Comment signed by the Prefect, card. Ratzinger. As a Consultor of the Congregation who had his hands on this issue, I was asked for a contribution. With the typical mania of the professor, I asked Msgr. Bertone to be able to see the original text, since I should have written about it, but his reply was that he had already prepared the text in typewritten copy and I could work with that. I wasn’t very keen on the answer, but there was no alternative. The Theological Commentary by J. Ratzinger was then published with an introduction of mine where, among other things, I wrote: “For the contents that we have expressed in this brief presentation, however, we are allowed to think that this type of prophecy cannot be considered accomplished. If this were the case, the perenniality of the message which has its foundation in the words of Jesus would fail. The gaze, therefore, opens to the future and illuminates it. Not with announcements pregnant with doom – because martyrdom is a gift and offering of love – but with the certainty of faith in Jesus Christ. This is what allows us to affirm that also in the future we will be called to give witness to the faith with the gift of life … The prophecy of Fatima, therefore, remains open, revealing a future where love will still be witnessed and lived without fear. , because it is always and only accepted as the love of God who in Christ gave all of himself for our salvation ”.
The third reference concerns Ali Ağca’s gun. A few years ago, visiting Wadowice, the hometown of Karol Wojtyła, I was also accompanied to the Museum where, among other mementos and relics, the gun that hit John Paul II is kept. The priest who accompanied me, explaining the details of the gun, also told me that shortly afterwards the concession that the Italian State had made to the Museum to store the weapon would expire, and this would have to be returned to its rightful owner. After a few months I received a beautiful letter from Card. Stanisław Dziwisz with whom he asked me to intercede at the Ministry of Grace and Justice to extend the granting of the weapon to the Museum. It was the period of the Jubilee of Mercy and for various reasons I had contacts with the minister Andrea Orlando. I asked to meet him and told him about the request. Among other things, hoping to convince him, I told him: “Anyway, what do you do with that gun … it will end up in some warehouse.” The Minister with great sympathy replied immediately: “No, look, we would know very well what to do with it!” At the very thought of that scene I still smile. The Minister, however, promised me to be confident: he would ask how to satisfy the request. Ali Ağca’s gun is still in the Wadowice Museum.
These few memories have allowed me to read the pages of Preziosi with even more interest. The author had already attempted to write about John Paul II with the beautiful volume “Immortale”. This time, however, he faces an important chapter in the life of the holy Pope. Opening this chapter again forty years later can help to keep alive that historical memory that needs to be always nourished, so that the memory and meaning it possessed not only for the generation that has experienced the drama of that day, but above all for those who have not lived it.
* President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization