MAY 13, 1981: I WAS THERE FOR THE SHOT HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD’
Where were you 40 Years Ago – May 13, 1981?
Well, let me tell you about that day, one I’ll never forget, a day the world, the Church will never forget. A day the world stood still.
Hours, days, weeks and then months of the pope being hospitalised because of the shooting, contacting a virus (the citamegalovirus, if memory serves me), and being released only in August. I covered all the papal news every day, every word from the press office and I even covered the trial of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish-born shooter. Hearing him speak was like listening to fingernails on a blackboard!
I remember May 13, 1981 as if it was today – every moment clear as a bell. I remember the fear, the anxiety, the disbelief, the screams and then the prayerful silence of those in St. Peter’s Square that day. I remember my mind being almost unable to process the words I heard – “The Pope’s been shot!” I can still see the scenes in the press office, the thousands of media arriving in the Eternal City, the thousands of people who came to St. Peter’s Square on Wednesdays and Sundays in particular, hoping to hear – and they did” – words of comfort from the Pope himself in the hospital. (vaticannews photo)
This is a story I first wrote several years after the attempt on John Paul’s life:
I was on my way to St. Peter’s Square for the 5:00 pm general audience that Pope John Paul had just begun to preside. The weather had been very warm and the Vatican had moved the audiences from the hot late morning sun to a later time in the afternoon.
As I walked towards the square after having a coffee in a small bar nearby, I saw a group of Italian students, perhaps 30 of them, perhaps 10-years old, walking away from St. Peter’s Square with their teacher. They were not running so there was no reason to worry and I didn’t give them a second thought, except to wonder why they were leaving the papal audience, instead of attending it.
And then I heard a scream! A voice shouted in Italian, “They’ve shot the pope!”
My mind could not process those words together. My feet seemed nailed to the sidewalk, I was momentarily paralyzed – it may have been five seconds or less but I couldn’t move! When I finally absorbed the shock, I ran towards St. Peter’s Square where people were not quietly listening to what should have been a papal catechesis, rather they were going in all directions, asking each other what they heard, asking each other what they had seen. There were a lot of tears, so many people holding their heads, shaking their heads in disbelief, but always the tears.
My mind still could not conceive the words “They’ve shot the pope.” It was unbelievable, unimaginable. Who in their right mind would want to shoot a man of such magnificent spirituality, such great teaching, such wisdom and humanity and humor, a man whose entire life was a life of prayer, of service, of dedication, of singular love for his Church love for his people, for all people?
Where was that life now – 5:30 in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 13? Had it ended? Was it hanging in the balance? Was it possible to go from joy to sorrow in only a nanosecond?
As I was running towards the square to see what had happened, one of the more amazing things happened.
I entered St. Peter’s Square and asked in as many languages as I knew what people had heard and what they had seen. At a certain point, a very tall American priest, with an obviously worried expression on his face, came up and asked me if I knew the whereabouts of the two women in his pilgrimage group who had been shot along with Pope John Paul!
Naturally, I was absolutely floored and asked him their names and if he thought they had been taken to a hospital. To this day, 39 years later, I remember those names: Ann Odre was a senior citizen in Father’s group and Rose Hall was the wife of a military man who had just come from – or was perhaps going to – Germany to see him. I made inquiries and found that both women had been taken to the nearby Santo Spirito hospital where, a day or two later, I visited Ann Odre.
Obviously the confusion in the Square surpassed understanding. And, in a way, the relative silence surpassed understanding. There was probably more silence than there should have been with a crowd of that size but people were praying, people were not talking, so many were struck dumb by the idea someone would want to shoot a pope.
John Paul of course became the focus of everyone’s attention: the faithful in the square, the people of Rome whose bishop had just been shot and, thanks to the media, people around the world. As a member of the media, I ran back to the press office to tell my colleagues what I had learned. I worked for a weekly newspaper in Rome at the time – the International Daily American – and also wrote a weekly column for the National Catholic Register as the Rome bureau chief. Working for a weekly it was tough to have a scoop but what I had discovered in the square, especially the information about the two American women, had to be shared with all of my fellow journalists.
For hours we were on the phone. We all called our contacts to ask who might have been in the square, what they saw, what they heard. Bit by bit, information was pieced together. We learned that a man with a gun, had raised it, pointed it at the pope and fired shots and was immediately wrestled to the ground by a nun. The man, we later discovered, was a Turkish citizen named Ali Agca who was immediately taken into custody.
No one even thought of leaving the press office: Throughout the evening, and into the first hours of the new day, we all had our eyes on the television sets in the press office. There was nothing at that time like today’s social media – no Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and videos made with cell phones (no cell phones at that time, either!), iPads, etc., so we relied on our land line phones and Italian television.
It was an amazing evening. The hours dragged on and on, restaurants closed and yet no one had dinner. At best, some colleagues went to a few coffee bars before they closed to get a sandwich and some coffee for what we knew would be a long night. We all knew that no matter what we were writing, the final story line could not be written until we heard from Gemelli hospital if the pope had survived his surgery or if indeed a final line have been written in the life of Pope John Paul.
Given God’s great love – and surely his Mother Mary’s love as well – for this special man, given Pope John Paul’s belief in Divine Mercy and his unshakeable belief in Divine Providence, we all received the gift of a pope who survived and a long papacy, following this potentially fatal day.
I got to bed in the wee small hours of the morning after dictating my story on the phone to the Register, based at the time in Los Angeles. I was exhausted when I went to bed and only slept a few hours because all of us were anxious to return to work the next morning and find out what had happened to the pope overnight.
You all know the rest of the story: Pope John Paul survived, had a long recovery period and eventually had other surgeries: There would be another 24 years of a fruitful pontificate by a travelling pope, a pope who wrote documents and poetry, a pope who influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
As I write these words 40 years later, that Pope is now Saint John Paul II.