Why Would Moscow plot to kill the Pope?
by Robert Pedersen
As John Paul II moved through St. Peter’s Square, beneath the clear blue Roman skies, blessing a crowd of 75,000, amongst a sea of waving white and yellow, the colors of the Vatican — vital, tanned, still athletic and fit at sixty– John Paul was rapidly becoming the most popular pope in modern times.
But along with the multinational and multi-ethnic pilgrims on this day, May 13, 1981, danger lurked in the crowds.
Already John Paul was the most traveled pope in history. A pope had never moved amongst his people with such ease; Wojtyla in the back of a white jeep, a glint of sun flashing off the crucifix about his neck, was charismatic. And although the square is immense — the Pope’s personality drew the crowds in; the crowd erupting in emotional spasms as the pontiff passes the 84 feet tall Circus of Nero obelisk — between the two arms of colonnades sweeping out into half circles, like two hands embracing the faithful. The masses were thrilled. They had come to see their Pope.
Two-and-one-half years earlier as Karol Wojtyla first appeared as John Paul II, on the balcony above the central portal of St. Peter’s, 200,000 had roared their approval. Then Barrow had been among a group of nuns and seminarians visiting from Krakow — waving red and white Polish flags as 117 cardinals filed up in a long line before the Basilica’s massive facade to kiss the papal ring of the man who until now had been their local bishop. Wojtyla’s election had been unexpected.
“Brothers and sisters,” the new pope announced, “be not afraid!
“Swing wide open the gates to Christ. Open up the world’s economic and political systems, open its walls and vast empires to His saving power.”
John Paul — the first pope from beyond the Iron Curtain — lifted his staff with both hands that day, wielding it like a weapon to trace the sign of the cross. In this sign he would conquer.
“The church of the oppressed nations is not a church of silence anymore, because it speaks with my voice.”
Now, moving through Poland, two and a half years into his pontificate John Paul is welcomed enthusiastically — not only because he is a fellow Pole, but because John Paul — now already two and a half years into his pontificate — is the most significant threat global communism has ever seen.
First, there was the miracle of a Polish pope itself — the first Polish pope; the first non-Italian pope in 450 years; the archbishop of Krakow elevated to the Holy See. The communist government had not wanted John Paul to visit Poland at all — but how could they say no? He was now the most famous Pole in the world. It would have been too great an embarrassment.So John Paul came. Not only the first Pope from a communist land, but the first Roman Pope to ever set foot in a communist land.
“We want God! We want God! The Polish people shouted, as John Paul II made his first visit to Poland. “Papa! Papa! We want God!”
This was a miracle! John Paul II was the most significant threat global communism had ever seen.
“What did the election of a Slavic Pope mean?” a reporter asked.
“We are Christians,” the Pope’s spokesman explained that day as he stood among a crowd of proud Poles wildly waving Polish and Vatican flags, “We will oppose everything that goes against human dignity. There must be freedom of religion and respect for human rights everywhere. Atheistic communism is incompatible with Christianity. We will not compromise with Marxist oppression except to open the doors for the Spirit of Christ to illuminate the nations.”
And the Pope would fling open the doors himself.
“It is not a true faith,” he said, “It distorts the Gospel.”
“What do you offer the poor then?” a reporter asked the pontiff.
“The love of Christ,” John Paul proclaimed, “The churches message is love, in the face of hatred, violence, poverty and oppression.”
The Mexican people thrust a large sombrero on him. Four million people flooded Mexico City’s streets. “Vive la Papa!” It made the crowds that would later gather for Gorbachev in Europe seem feckless and puny.
Millions would stand in open-air papal masses, for hours, during John Paul II’s three official Polish visits – even though rallies had long been illegal in Poland –to catch a glimpse of their native son.
“Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, the Pope proclaimed, “In the name of what reasoning does one bring oneself to reject Him who has formed the basis of our identity for a thousand years.”
With such bold and public rebukes of the atheist state John Paul showed off the unmistakable limits of communist power; that was myth-shattering. After three decades of oppression, the people, after all, were not powerless
Thirteen million — one out of three Poles would see the Polish Pontiff in person; vast Solidarity banners looming over their heads carried through the crowds. Karol Wojtyla — teaching his people, in long forbidden mass rallies, to “Be not afraid!” Some called it a message of “hope.” But it wasn’t hope, it was belief.A knowledge that they were part of something more transcendent than the dismal communist ideology they currently found themselves laboring under.
The Poles watched John Paul kneeling to kiss the ground as he disembarked from his white jet in Warsaw. Then, the Pope, Krakow’s own Karol Wojtyla, standing at the window of the Italianate residence at Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral, blessing the people long hours into the night– as the people stood below him singing Polish hymns and long forbidden patriotic songs.
In Warsaw, 300,000 packed Victory Square , where he knelt to kiss the tomb of the unknown Polish soldier. There John Paul, beneath a 3 1/2 story cross erected above a square that had been built for communist mass rallies and parades, declared, “This city belongs to you. No one can arbitrarily dictate your beliefs.”
More than once tanks were brought up, only to stand impotently before the Polish pontiff and his people. John Paul’s sense of humor and charm, his own presence, safeguarded the equilibrium of the crowds. He laid claim to the hearts, and at no time did the massive crowds threaten to spin out of control. The liberation he brought was of the Spirit.
During three trips, Poles in the millions, had reclaimed their heritage. Their birthright. And Poland, at least in spirit, could never be a captive nation again
“Papa! Papa!” they shouted, “We want God! We want God! We want God!” Pictures of the Black Madonna of Czestichowa, “Queen of Poland,” Poland’s holiest image, pinned on Polish banners of red and white. Soon Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s leader kept her image pinned to his lapel at all times.
The Pope blessing Lech Walesa.
The Pope blessing the masses.
The Pope blessing Father Jerzey’s grave.
People threw flowers at his feet wherever he went.
After thirty years of virtual silence, the Polish people had found their voice.
Every Pole knew that Warsaw was destroyed because the Soviet troops sat as the Polish Home Army rose up to push the Nazi’s out. The Soviets had sat just across the river, waited there in plain view for weeks and then finally took “a crushed and supplicant Poland.” When the Red Army finally entered the capital they arrested the resistance leaders that were left; less than a tenth of the city’s population — 130,000 — still lived in Warsaw.
Every Pole knew about Katyn forest and Degachi, and Bolugaye. 15,000 Polish officers slaughtered in the woods. Long passed off as a Nazi job. But now the truth emerging. Stalin had ordered the massacres in June, 1940.
The Polish defiant embrace of Polish Catholicism was also a defiant embrace of Polish nationalism. If communism was part and parcel with atheism; Polish nationalism was unfathomable without its Catholic faith.
Wojtyla, from his earliest days, had a burning disdain against the oppression of the church; and it was a spiritual disdain on every possible level. He had been trained as a priest under Nazi occupation and served as priest, bishop, and cardinal under Stalinist oppression.
Yet the church, the carrier of Poland’s identity, had shown infinite patience. It had been under oppression for centuries — as the high limestone and brick ramparts surrounding the Pauline complex where Wojtyla had lectured testified. Here Stanislaw, the 11th century archbishop had been decapitated for treason. And here for the last 50 years — first under the Nazi’s and then under communism, the church had hold up behind its brick and mortar walls and strong iron gates. For Poland had rarely been free — dominated by Russians and Prussians and Austrians – and dictators of every stripe — black, brown and red.
But Karol Wojtyla had changed all that.
“Before John Paul,” a ship yard worker once remarked, “there was nothing but gloom. Our Pope made everything seem possible.” Never again would the communist government suffer from an illusion that it held sway over Polish hearts and minds.
Now the day of the Polish patriots had come.
It was Solidarity’s day.
And Solidarity had won.
So it was that on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square, Wojtyla, in the back of a white jeep. moved through the crowd against a waving sea of white and yellow lilies.
Above his plain white cossack, and short woolen cloak, hung a latin cross; deeply modern with slivered cross bands and waves of echoing grooves. It glistens in the sun as his “pope-mobile” circles the square.
Above , one’s attention is drawn to St. Peter’s massive baroque façade and the the statuary figures mounted above; transfixed by Christ, John the Baptist and the faithful eleven disciples, , contemplating their sacrifices, in the warm light of the late afternoon sun. It was 5:17 PM.
Three shots ringing out.
Some one saw an arm raised just to his left, and then a glint, a flash off something metal.
Two pilgrims fell to the ground.
Now, Ahmed Ali Agca squeezed off two more bullets from his Browning 9mm semi-automatic — aimed directly at the pope’s head.
Blood splattered the pope’s white cassock, and his crisp silk sash.
At the last moment, the pope had bent towards a portrait of Our Lady of Fastima, pinned on a little girl’s blouse.
The pope, wounded in the chest, sinks into his jeep. “Madonna,” he repeated, “Madonna.”
“Not me, not me!.”
“Yes, you. It was you” she shouted.
His private secretary, who had been seated just behind him, cradled Karol Wojtyl in his arms, muttering a prayer:
Mother of God.
Pray for us.
Have Mercy on us.
For years, the mystery would linger– who would want to kill the Pope? The questions searched through Italy, France, East Germany, Turkey, Greece. Only slowly, did the focus turn to Bulgaria. But why Bulgaria? Certainly, a Soviet satellite would not have acted without direct orders from Moscow? But why the communist?
It is now clear that Poland was the linchpin to European communism’s collapse — and the Pope had been the key to freeing Poland from its bondage.