Thirty years ago, on May 13, 1981, John Paul was greeting the throng in Vatican City. As he was taking a second spin around St. Peter’s Square in his open-air white Jeep, four bullets fired from a semi-automatic pistol struck him. Two shots lodged in his lower intestine producing massive blood loss. He survived and thrived for twenty-four more years, cries of ‘Santo Subito!’ – ‘Sainthood Now!’ – ringing out upon his passing. On the first of May, Anno Domini 2011, his successor beatified him, marking the fastest track ever to sainthood.
The eclipse of John Paul’s beatification by the elimination of bin Laden, is a striking reminder, if one were needed, of conflicting forces of good and evil a rage in our world.
As death stars aligned in early ‘81, the attempted assassination of the Pope occurred within seven weeks of the attempt on President Reagan. While Reagan’s assailant was a star-struck nut, the Pope’s would-be assassin hailed from sinister forces. In the Evil Empire narrative of the final round of the Cold War, the Turk shooter in St Peter’s Square was a “trained sniper” sponsored by the Bulgarian KGB working for their Soviet masters.
According to a 1978 CIA assessment, the elevation of the Archbishop of Krakow should “prove extremely worrisome to Moscow if only because the responsiveness of his papacy is likely to evoke in East European communist societies.” And four years later, “the Soviets may be particularly sensitive to the issue because of the Western press implications that General Secretary Andropov, during his tenure as head of the KGB, might have played a role in the attempt (on Pope John Paul’s life).” William Casey, Reagan’s DCI and a Knight of the Order of Malta, fully fathomed the fulcrum of faith in the upending of Communism.
Archbishop Karol Josef Wojtyla was every inch a product of the Polish Catholic Church, the pre-eminent buttress of national identity through the travails of Napoleonic invasion, Nazi conquest, and Communist suppression. Returning to Poland in mid-‘79 as Pope, John Paul held mass before more than a million in Warsaw in defiance of laws against public gathering and religious worship. “Don’t be afraid,” he counseled the crowd. “The future of Poland will depend on how many people are mature enough to be non-conformist.” It marked the beginning of the end of the Evil Empire.
The Pope’s passion for his people’s freedom did not extend to the plight of the peoples of Latin America. In “Liberation theology”, which had taken root in ‘68 when Latin bishops determined to rededicate the Church to the downtrodden, John Paul saw the threat of Communism wrapped in a challenge to Church hierarchy. The newly installed Pope took it upon himself to campaign vigorously against “the popular Church.” In his first major Papal trip early in ‘79, John Paul faced five million of the faithful in Mexico City and denounced liberation theology: “When they begin to use political means, they cease to be theologians.”
On his fifth trip to Latin America in ’85, the Pontiff flew into the Andean mountain town of Ayacucho, stronghold of a burgeoning insurgency – the Sendero Luminoso, aka the Shining Path. He appealed to the Maoist revolutionaries:
“I beg you, with pain in my heart, and at the same time with firmness and hope, that you reflect on the paths you have taken. In the name of God, change paths!… We need to promote the dignity of man and help to transform unjust situations and structures that violate dignity…. We must not heed those who reduce the poor to sociopolitical or economic abstractions.”
Later that day, the Pontiff touched down in Lima. It was precisely 8:38pm on a mild, late summer night in the Peruvian Capital. The Pope’s plane was on the tarmac less than a minute when a total blackout blanketed the entire city of six million. The Sendero, in a precision strike, had blown up five of the six high-voltage transmission towers feeding Lima. In sync, lanterns, shining from various directions, formed a hammer and sickle on the slope of a nearby hill for John Paul to see. God said, “Let there be light”; the audacious Shining Path said otherwise, letting the Pontiff know it could have been lights out for him.
Seven years later, Sendero’s leader, who many supposed was commanding the impending takeover of Peru from the rugged heights of the Andes, was ferreted out in an upper class neighborhood in Lima. Among other factors, investigators were alerted to amounts and types of garbage coming from the two-story safe-house. Like the terror masters who would succeed and exceed him, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Osama bin Laden, the ego-maniacal “Fourth Sword of Communism” couldn’t hack the Spartan life in a mountain hideout.
Over time, the Pope’s Turkish assailant has variously implicated Bulgarians, Palestinians, Mossad and, last November, the Vatican secretary. In the global cross-currents of signals to kill, some are received through fillings, others in the scrawl of telecasts. The lethal results are indistinguishable. And what of the simultaneous deliverance of polar opposites? Sorting it all out, requires the omniscience of a saint.