COVER

THE ULTIMATE BLASPHEMY

Peter Lewis May 25 1981
COVER

THE ULTIMATE BLASPHEMY

Peter Lewis May 25 1981

THE ULTIMATE BLASPHEMY

COVER

Peter Lewis

He was an intense, youngish man with his left hand jammed into the pocket of his beige jacket, and when he presented his ticket to the forward section of a sunlit St. Peter’s Square to attend Pope John Paul II's weekly audience from close up the guard didn’t even look twice. He soon wished that he had. In a blurred moment of ferocity, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish terrorist whose road to Rome began 18 months ago when he made up his mind to slay the pontiff, abruptly struck at the object of his obsession last Wednesday with a burst of fire from a nine-mm Browning pistol. The slim, unblinking gunman’s bullets failed to kill the most popular Pope in modern times. But he may well have torn the heart out of John Paul’s remarkable papacy by permanently damaging his rugged constitution.

In the first days following the stunning attack, doctors attending the Pope in Rome’s Gemelli hospital after a 5V2hour operation to repair the havoc done to his abdomen by a slug, refused to commit themselves on the pontiff’s chances of survival, let alone to say whether he would recover the strength to pursue his vigorous stewardship of the Catholic Church. By Sunday, however, it seemed that in terms of pure survival the Pope—whose 61st birthday fell on Monday—was at least out of immediate danger. A hospital bulletin said that “the postoperative process is evolving favorably” and there was even talk of a bedside broadcast by the patient.

The continuing risk to John Paul’s life lay in the danger of infection after surgery to remove a length of damaged intestine and to create a temporary bypass-known in medical terms as a colostomy—to permit his bowel to heal without the strain of carrying body waste. The fear that John Paul might never fully recover from his devastating wound was voiced Friday by a member of the three-man team that started operating on the Polish-born pontiff minutes after he was rushed, inert yet conscious, into a hospital emergency ward. “He will need an iron constitution if he is not to be diminished to some degree,” said one surgeon.

The attempt on the Pope’s life, coming just six weeks after the shooting of President Ronald Reagan and less than six months after John Lennon’s murder, fell like a hammer blow. This time it was the unthinkable that had happened, the ultimate desecration, an event that brought the Christian world to its knees in prayer for the Pope’s survival. It was also a measure of the man, the “Pope from far away” as he styled himself on stepping into the shoes of St. Peter 31 months ago (see page 20), who had travelled the world to steal men’s hearts with his deceptively simple charm and evident concern for the agony of the human condition, while steeling their minds to accept the church’s traditional teachings.

It was after 5 p.m. in St. Peter’s Square when John Paul, on one of his usual public audiences, completed a circuit of the smiling crowd of 18,000, waved a greeting to a bystander and embraced a little girl with all the familiar affection and panache before proceeding on his way. Moments later, the 60-year-old pontiff with the physique of an athlete had crumpled backward in his “Popemobile,” the open jeep in which he makes so many of his public appearances, his immaculate white robes already marked with blood. The burst of shots, from a little more than eight metres away, was so fast that people standing near the killer, like Caterina Damiani, heard only two of the three shots. “The Pope flinched only slightly, then fell,” she said. Hit in the abdomen, right arm and left hand, John Paul sagged sideways, his lips pursed in a grimace. As his private secretary struggled to support him and plainclothes police cleared a path out of the square, the crowd sent up a terrible wail.

What happened next sparked a hot controversy in medical circles. As the Pope was carried to an ambulance parked by the Vatican’s Arc of the Bells, papal aides hurriedly ruled that rather than sending him to Santo Spirito hospital, a rather grubby but excellent state establishment only a kilometre away, the pontiff would be directed to the modern Gemelli Catholic University Hospital three kilometres from St. Peter’s. It was a winding 20-minute drive—during which the Pope prayed faintly in Polish—and many doctors say the decision could have cost John Paul his life had he been hemorrhaging heavily. They maintain that, at any rate, the lurching of the ambulance may well have aggravated his wounds.

By Sunday, however—with the Pope receiving selected visitors in his sterilized intensive-care unit and doctors reporting the first signs of spontaneous movement of his damaged intestines— such debates seemed academic. And the questioning, which echoed the Pope’s first incredulous “How could they do this?”, had in any case switched to the “why” and the “who” behind the mysterious assassination attempt. Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be killer, did nothing to provide the answers. That he was a fanatic skilled in the business of murder was evident from what he said, his past and the way he handled his weapon in St. Peter’s Square before being wrestled to the ground—the bullets he got off struck the Pope, a moving target (two slugs going on to wound two American women in the throng). But what was less clear was his exact motive for wanting to kill John Paul and whether he acted alone.

Investigators at the Questura, Rome’s police headquarters, quickly satisfied themselves that Agca had no accomplice in the actual shooting. But they gained the conviction as they pieced together his strange background and movements that he had been actively aided on his grim journey to the square. “We think it can be documentally proved that others are involved in this,” said Deputy State Prosecutor Luciano Infelisi, a specialist in terrorism. “My bet is that he was acting in the pay of an international subversive group.” However, the 23-year-old Agca himself claimed the attack was his own doing. A rough draft of a leaflet found in his pocket as he was bundled into the Questura declared: “I, Agca, have killed the Pope so that the world may know of the thousands of victims of imperialism.” But as his interrogation stretched into hours, then days, he seemed to delight in confusing his interrogators, saying first that he was a leftist supporter of George Habbash’s extremist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and then switching the story to admit his connections with Turkey’s right-wing terrorist factions. His responses drove one distracted detective to call him “a lying cynic.” Another Questura official, Simone Nicola, described Agca as “extremely closed and tough—outside the norm.”

The would-be killer was decidedly that. A convicted murderer in his native& country—in February, 1979, he shot to£ death Abdi Ipekci, editor of the liberal^ daily Milliyet—Agca succeeded in es-§ caping from the maximum-securityS Kartal prison in Istanbul that Novem-o ber with the complicity of right-wing? guards. A few days later, as John Paul“ prepared to visit Turkey, Agca declared that he intended to shoot the pontiff,0 whom he described, in a diatribe against Western imperialism, as “Commander of the Masked Crusaders.”

Instead of carrying out his threat, however, he dropped from sight. In the next 18 months, say police, he made something of a gunman’s grand tour of Europe, visiting Denmark, Switzerland, Sicily, West Germany, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Spain and Italy on fake passports. He also made a side trip to Tunisia. His first visit to Rome appears to have come last December, when he checked in at a modest pension, the Isa, near the Piazza Cavour. In early April, Agca turned up in Perugia (see page 18), before setting off again for unknown parts in Italy and then to Spain’s Balearic Islands. On his return to Rome last Monday, he booked in at his old pension, whose owner later stated that he received no visits but made a number of telephone calls. When Agca left his shabby room on his mission to St. Peter’s only two days after booking in, he left behind a briefcase containing a cartridge clip for his weapon and a letter in Turkish, denouncing both “Russian and American imperialism.”

The horror that followed stunned the world—Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau deplored the barbarity of a society “incapable of respecting the lives of God’s own messengers”—but it came close to breaking the hearts of Italians, whom even the worst excesses of the Red Brigade had failed to harden against such an act. “What have things come to if even the safety of the Pope is not sacred?” asked an anguished editorialist in II Messaggero, the Rome daily. His countrymen drew some comfort from the fact the assailant was a foreigner. It had flashed upon every mind in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that the pontiff’s assailant might in fact have been a Red Brigade hit team. “I think I speak for all Italians when I say I’m glad it wasn’t one of us,” said television commentator Mario Pastore.

But such relief was tempered by the knowledge that little but the immense awe of his person and office protects the Pope. In fact, with only 50 Italian policemen and the Swiss guards of the Vatican to guard him, he is generally less protected in Italy than when he travels abroad, where security arrangements are handled by the host countries— principally to prevent the pontiff from being overwhelmed by his admirers.

The question of security, indeed, lies at the crux of John Paul’s open-style papacy. In travelling further than any previous Pope to carry his message, the Polish pontiff has made it a duty to rip down the barriers between himself and his flock. Those who observe his effect on crowds say this willingness to be seen, touched and lionized has contributed more than any other single factor to his charisma. The crucial question now is whether his grave injuries or the dictates of security will force him to play a more retiring role, to become like some of his predecessors in the distant past, a “prisoner of the purple.” Many people who know him doubt this. “I’m convinced he won’t change his style,” says Msgr. Ralph Brown, a British prelate. “It is his gift to the papacy to be that sort of man —a man of the people.” Doctors treating John Paul at the Gemelli hospital at week’s end were not so sure. The body, they pointed out, has limits to which even a Pope must bow.