The (Failed) Assassination of Pope John Paul II and Its Odd Aftermath

By Eric MuellerLast Updated May 13, 2021 12:24:38 PM ET
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The roots of the word "assassin" stem from the Holy Wars of the Crusades. Although "assassin" didn’t enter the English language until the 16th century, it comes from a French/Italian word, "assissini," derived from the Arabic, "hashishin," which has roots 300 years prior to its acceptance into English. This seems like a fitting origin when discussing a particular event that occurred more than 40 years ago: the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.

The events of April 13, 1981 led to tighter security at the Vatican and for high-ranking clergy members all over the world. The scenario might feel like an action movie, and, later, the shooting of John Paul II did inspire works of fiction such as Tom Clancy’s Red Rabbit and Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol. We don’t know for sure if the assassination of Pope Joan Paul II would’ve had apocalyptic consequences, but it does raise questions about gun control and how to treat our enemies that maybe the current Pope, Francis I, could answer.

Presidents, Parades, and Priests: A New Kind of Pope

John Paul II was born in 1920 and was appointed pope in 1978. In fact, he had only been pope for two years prior to this assassination attempt. Known as a pope for the people, John Paul II was a different kind of priest.

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When you think about it, John Paul II was the first to become pope in an era where televisions were a norm in the average household. John Paul II definitely took advantage of the visibility that television offered. He was very much in the public eye for much of the late ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Cities threw parades for him. Celebrities shook hands with him. It did not take long for John Paul II to take the world by storm.

The assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II occured on April 13, 1981. The pope had just arrived at Saint Peter's Square and greeted a crowd of 10,000 people. While blessing a man with a camera, the shot went off; the camera man’s footage shows the pope seconds after being shot. On the footage, John Paul II was as cool, calm, and collected as possible, considering the circumstances.

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The shooter’s name was Mehmet Ali Ağca. Mehmet was a 23-year-old man from Turkey. He was able to get a good shot on the pope, but did not do any further damage. Today, we may be more used to shootings that look like random acts of violence, crowds of people being dealt blow after blow. But Ağca only had one target that day.

In the aftermath of the shooting, two parts of the pope’s intestines were removed. Aside from that, there was not much lasting damage. John Paul II was able to make a quick recovery, but that is not where the story ends. A case like this seems pretty "open and shut." A man fired a gun at a figurehead, and was caught right away, right? Well, here’s where it gets wild.

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Radicalization and… the End of the World?

Mehmet Ağca had publicly threatened the pope two years prior to the attempt. He was being held in prison for the alleged murder of journalist Abdi Ipecki, and escaped federal Turkish prison in 1979. A letter threatening the pope was found in his cell, Which led to the Vatican beefing up John Paul II’s security.

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Two years later, Ağca took a flight from Turkey to Milan under a false name. No one is sure how Ağca was able to get a 9mm handgun into the country, but he either had one from Turkey or acquired it after arriving in Italy. Despite all of this, John Paul II showed his popeliness and was instantly forgiving of Ağca. Perhaps surprisingly, the two formed quite the bond over the years that followed the attempt.

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There are all types of theories as to why Ağca shot the pope and who he may or may not have been working with to do it. If you dive into the deep internet, you can probably find a conspiracy theory of every imaginable scenario, but, here, we are focusing on the more widely believed scenarios.

Ağca has given multiple accounts of his planning for the attack and multiple motives. You know how Pope John Paul II is considered to be more of a pope of the people and even rubbed elbows in Hollywood? Ağca, at one point, said that the Pope had a capitalist agenda and pretty much called him a sellout — if not evil.

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Some suggest the KGB may have been involved. John Paul II was a Polish pope. Poland at the time was taking steps to liberate itself from its ties to the Soviet Union, which helped create a domino effect that ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

He’s also claimed to be the Second Coming and was doing his duty. Over the years, Ağca also said that he had assistance from inside the Vatican itself, and that the devil lives inside those walls. In the year 2000, John Paul II went on to reveal that the assassination attempt was actually the Third Secret of Fatima —the third apocalyptic vision that came to Lúcia de Jesus Rosa dos Santos. Yikes.

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The text of the secret has been released from the Vatican, but the writing in it is open to interpretation. However, at Agca’s second trial in 1986, he asked about the third secret and why it had not been released yet. We told you this was a wild one!

Some speculate that Ağca was a member of the People’s Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular Marxist-Leninist group known for suicide bombings and other attacks. Later, it was confirmed that Ağca was a member of the Gray Wolves, also known as the Idealist Hearths, a right-wing ultra secular organization. Similar to QAnon and other conspiracy-sharing hubs, it is believed that Ağca was radicalized — but without the internet.

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Despite how radical the positions of Ağca were, it did not hinder his relationship with John Paul II. They did not have a relationship prior to Ağca’s shooting, but the pope was adamant about forming one afterwards. For years, John Paul II would visit Ağca in his cell (pictured above) and the two became penpals. John Paul II did not have to travel far as Ağca was sentenced to life in a private prison nearby.

The pope was adamant about forgivingAğca in the media and went out of his way to forge a bond. Ağca was even reported to have kissed the pope’s ring at one point. And, when Ağca was released from prison in 2010, he published his first book in 2013 about the attempted assassination.

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Francis, Benedict, and Safer Tomorrows

The first pope to take over after John Paul II’s death in 2005 was Benedict XVI. Born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, Pope emeritus Benedict XIV was pretty far off from John Paul II’s interpretation of what it means to be a pope. Benedict XIV was more studious — a pope for the scholars. But Benedict XIV was not pope for long and eventually stepped down because of his age and health.

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While Benedict XIV may have been on the conservative side when it came to birth control, reproductive rights, sexuality, and gender, it’s still noteworthy that the Catholic Church under Benedict XIV advocated for gun control and peace. Whether Benedict XIV would have been as poised and forgiving as John Paul II is not clear.

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In 2013, a man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope Francis I. Taking over for Benedict, Pope Francis has more in common with John Paul II. Pope Francis is from Argentina and is the first pope to be born outside of Europe in more than a millenia.

Pope Francis is rightfully credited with bringing needed progress to the Catholic Church. We love that the name "Francis" was chosen because of Francis of Assisi — the patron saint of animals and the environment. More importantly, the name choice lines up with the pope’s political views: Pope Francis has been very outspoken about climate change among other issues.

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Despite the progress from Francis, his forwardness can seem like too little, too late, for some in the community. For example, women are now able to have formalized roles in the Catholic Church thanks to Pope Francis, but, for some reason, they still can’t become priests. Pope Francis has also been more accepting of some LGBTQIA+ individuals, to the point to where he would allow for same-sex marraiges or other non-traditional forms of matrimony via civil unions. These days, Pope Francis I is using his platform to support and advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine.

When it comes to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, it’s likely that Francis would have been as forgivng as possible to the would-be assassin too. Pope Francis has openly supported youth activists advocating for gun reform, and has advocated for peace himself, so he would probably want to find out how Ağca acquired the automatic weapon and ensure it would never happen again. Today, Italy, the country that surrounds Vatican City, does have strict gun control laws and even had the opportunity to ban gun ownership for private citizens the very same year of the assassination attempt.

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Today, assassination attempts aren’t the norm, but mass shootings are rather prevalent. With the world reopening up after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unfortunate that gun violence is returning as well.This was a threat then and it is now. Thankfully, there are figureheads like Pope Francis speaking out for the changes we need until those changes are made.