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INTERVIEW: Biographer Remembers the Attack on the Pope

“People wept, despaired or fell silent. People were kneeling in prayer, because many believed the Pope was dead”

 

Wodzimierz Redzioch is the author of “Stories about John Paul II. Told by his close friends and co-workers” (Ignatius Press).

ZENIT asked Redzioch to tell us about his own recollections and impressions of the attempted assassination of John Paul II, which happened 35 years ago today.

ZENIT: What were you doing on May 13, 1981?

Redzioch: May 13, 1981 was a normal day of work for me in the offices of L’Osservatore Romano. Being with the Vatican newspaper, I was also following the Pope’s activity. For him, instead, it was an intense day: that day John Paul II instituted the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family and he received in audience the very famous French geneticist Jerome Lejeune with his wife, whom he entertained in a friendly lunch.

ZENIT: Where were you when the attack on the Pope happened?

Redzioch: In the afternoon of May 13 I accompanied my Polish friends to Saint Peter’s Square for the Wednesday General Audience, but I didn’t stay with them: I stay in the shade, under the left colonnade, to enjoy the spectacle of the Square crowded with jubilant people awaiting John Paul II. At 5:00 pm from the Arch of Bells, under the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Pope’s white jeep came out and began to tour the Square. The Pontiff moved slowly between the forest of raised arms of faithful armed with flags, handkerchiefs and cameras. At a certain point John Paul II took a baby in his arms with a balloon: he kissed her and gave her back to her parents. At that moment, something strange happened: all the pigeons that were in the Square took flight; immediately after, I saw chaos around the Pope’s car, which turned and began to reverse towards the Arch of Bells.

ZENIT: What did you think?

Redzioch: I, as all the faithful gathered in the Square, didn’t know exactly what had happened in Saint Peter’s Square. But from mouth to mouth the tremendous voice ran: “Attack! Attack!” People wept, despaired or fell silent. People were kneeling in prayer, because many believed the Pope was dead.

During the audience of that fatal May 13, 1981, John Paul II should have pronounced a catechesis in which, speaking of Mary, he affirmed: “She knew the most intimate and profound joy joined to the sadness of the most terrible trial. So it happens to all of us; and joy alternates with sorrow, mixing roses and thorns in our life.” I was thinking that day that in my life also the dramatic moment had arrived of terrible trial: I had left my country, my family, my professional career to come to the Rome of John Paul II to make my very small contribution to this “Polish pontificate,” but at that moment, everything seemed to me to have ended.

ZENIT: What was happening in the Square after the attack?

Redzioch: The people weren’t receiving any news because all the organizers of the Audience and the Vatican police disappeared. Fortunately, in those tragic moments, Father Casimir Przydatek, director of the Center for Polish Pilgrims was in the Square; he went to the microphone and began to pray the Rosary: the people prayed and sang. One of those present had brought from Poland, as a present for John Paul II, a copy of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Father Casimir took it and put it on the Pope’s empty armchair. Afterwards I went to the House for Polish Pilgrims, which is two steps from Saint Peter’s, on the via Pfeiffer. As I walked I jumped into the Vatican Press Office, already crowded with journalists. All were very worried, also because initially Father Panciroli, official of the Press Office, had spoken of the possibility of the perforation of the Holy Father’s pancreas. At the Polish House, I sat in front of the television, which was broadcasting live from the Gemelli Polyclinic. From the TV I learnt that the ambulance arrived at the hospital in record time, hence the operation began at 5:55 pm. The Pontiff’s conditions were desperate; so Dom Stanislaw imparted absolution and the anointing of the sick to the Pope. I stayed in front of the television until 11:30 pm, when the press release arrived of the doctor, Professor Castiglioni, who informed the journalists that the operation had a positive outcome, adding: “We did all that could be done. Now we must wait.” However, the prognosis remained reserved. It was a long night of waiting marked by prayer and reflections.

ZENIT: In your opinion, who organized the attack and who armed Ali Agca’s hand?

Redzioch: Obviously, I followed Ali Agca’s trial and, like everyone, I wondered who were his instigators. I spoke about this issue with so many people. One day I met Cardinal Andrzej Maria Deskur and I asked him what he thought of the various “clues” regarding those who ordered the attack. The Cardinal, a fraternal friend of John Paul II, answered me: “You know that on May 12 in the evening, the Pope, as all priests, was reading during the evening prayer, the passage of the Letter of Saint Paul: “Be temperate, vigilant. Your enemy, the devil, is going around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” So it’s obvious that it was the devil that wanted to “devour” John Paul II, but for me it is altogether indifferent which “hand” he used.

ZENIT: In that period you were very close to JP II’s collaborators. What did they think? What did they say?

Redzioch: Cardinal Deskur’s words made one understand that the Pope and his collaborators looked at the attack from the eschatological point of view. During his second stay in the Gemelli Polyclinic, in the month of July, John Paul II had the envelope brought to him with the original text  of the “third secret” of Fatima written by Sister Lucia, because he realized that the day they tried to kill him  was the anniversary of the Virgin’s first apparition. Speaking of the attack, from that day on the Pope always said: “A hand shot and another guided the bullet.” One day Cardinal Dziwisz said: “The attack is the mystery, which despite the drama we lived, we try to see in the perspective of the salvific designs of Divine Providence.” Therefore, we cannot separate the event of the attack from the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, which began in fact on May 13. For this reason, John Paul II wanted the bullet of Agca’s pistol, which would have changed the history of the Church and of the world, to be set in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

ZENIT: What do you think of Ali Agca’s trial?

Redzioch: The investigations were done badly; everyone admits it. For instance, there is talk officially of two shots, instead Arturo Mari, the Pope’s photographer, is convinced he heard four shots. The trial also clarified little about the instigators of the attacker. For this reason, Judge Ferdinand Imposimato said that the trial was ruined appositely. Instead, not all know that in Poland the Institute of National Memory carried out its own investigations. Procurator Micha Skwara and historian Andrzej Grajewski published a book with the results of their investigations and research. From latter it results that the Secret Services of Communist Bulgaria were the direct instigators of Ali Agca. They furnished the attacker with the pistol and money. The Polish inquirers heard from a former offical of the Ministry of Public Security of Communist Germany, Gunter Bohnsack, who told them that in March 1983 colonel Jordan Ormankov of the Bulgarian Services visited his German companions to organize a disinformation action to cover “the Bulgarian clue” of the attack. The German Services mobilized  their men in Federal Germany and Austria: they, passing themselves off as Turkish nationalists, began to inundate the press agencies and the Italian Consulates with threats asking for the release of Ali Agca. Everything was being done to link the person of the attacker to the realms of Turkish extremism in Federal Germany and Turkey. But the Polish inquirers had no doubts that the Bulgarian Secret Services could not act on their own, without the agreement of the powerful Russian KGB.

I would like to recall a document of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of 1979, where it orders the KGB to compare the politics of the “Polish Pope” with all means, in addition to the actions of disinformation and discredit.

ZENIT: Will we discover one day who the instigators were of Ali Agca?

Redzioch: Perhaps, in 10, 20 or 50 years when access can be had to certain archives that today are inaccessible.

About Antonio Gaspari

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