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ON THIS DAY: 13th May 1981: Attempted assassination of St. Pope John Paul II

41 years ago today, on the feast day of the Apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, the attempted assassination of polish Pope John Paul II took place in Rome. 

Near the start of his weekly general audience at St Peter’s square in Vatican City, the 60-year-old pontiff was shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Ağca while he was entering the square in an open car, blessing the thousands of faithful gathered.

Suddenly four shots were fired at close range, one of which hit the pontiff, and John Paul II collapsed into the arms of his aides as the Popemobile was driven away at speed, chased by a team of security officers. One of the shots fired by the 23-year-old assailant, an escaped murderer and Turkish citizen, hit St Pope John Paul II in the abdomen, very nearly missing vital organs and just inches away from piercing his heart and aorta. Another shot hit the Pope’s left hand.

Two female bystanders were also injured in the attack; A third bullet struck 60-year-old American Ann Odre in the chest, seriously wounding her, and the fourth hit 21-year-old Jamaican, Rose Hill in the arm.

In dramatic scenes, Ağca was seized by the Vatican’s security chief, a nun, and several other spectators who knocked the gun out of his hand. He was swiftly detained until he was arrested by police. Italian police revealed that Ağca was a far-right terrorist who had been found guilty of the 1979 murder of prominent left-wing journalist Abdi İpekçi. They seized Ağca’s Browning handgun and said he had travelled to Italy using a false passport.

Panic erupted in St Peter’s Square as the faithful cried, praying that the Holy Father would survive the attempt on his life.

The afternoon’s unfolding events were reported live by a Vatican Radio journalist, Benedetto Nardacci, who said: “For the first time there is talk of terrorism even in the Vatican.”

Karol Wojtyla, elected pope in 1978, suffered severe blood loss and was rushed by ambulance to Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, undergoing more than five hours of emergency surgery and was listed in critical but stable condition. Later that night, doctors described the surgery as “successful” and despite his injuries, the Pope survived.

No vital organs had been hit, and the pontiff would go on to credit his survival to Our Lady of Famita – with the shooting occurring on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima, who first appeared to Portuguese children on May 13, 1917.

Ağca was later sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court.


Famously, the Pope forgave Ağca. On the Sunday morning following the shooting, the pope addressed the faithful from his hospital bed in a recorded message, imploring people to pray for the man who pulled the trigger, whom he referred to as “my brother” and offered his “sincere forgiveness.”

Within a few weeks John Paul II had recovered fully and on 27 December 1983 he went to visit his attempted assassin in Rebibbia jail in Rome.

20 years after the assassination attempt, John Paul II requested that his attacker be pardoned. He was pardoned by Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi at the Pope’s request and was deported to Turkey in June 2000.

Agca’s motives for shooting the Pope remain unclear to this day. Some suggest the KBG were involved because of Wojtiyla’s fierce opposition to communism. At the time he said he acted alone, although he previously belonged to a far-right group. He later went on to suggest that the attack was masterminded by the Bulgarian and Soviet secret services, although no evidence of such a claim has ever been found.

Ağca was released from Ankara prison in 2010, five years after the death of Pope John Paul II, who would be declared a saint four years later in 2014.

Last year, aged 64 and living in Istanbul, Ağca told Italian news agency ANSA:

“Certainly full light has not been shed on the attack on Pope John Paul II,” adding that “many people’s memories are fading in a world full of events.”


The mysterious “Third Secret” of Fatima featured a vision of a pope killed alongside other martyrs. In time, John Paul II came to see this vision as pointing to himself in relation to the attack that nearly took his life, carried out on the same date as the first apparition of Mary at Fatima. 

Reflecting on the vision of the Third Secret, John Paul II believed it was Our Lady of Fatima who was protecting him. The Pope later said that while the assassin’s hand fired the shot, “…it was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s paths and in his throes the Pope halted at the threshold of death.”

A year after the shooting, the Pope visited the apparition site of Fatima. Approaching the statue of Mary, carrying the bullet in his hand, he placed the bullet in Mary’s crown, and thanked the blessed mother for interceding for him, saying to her, “You saved me, you saved me”. 

Speaking on the 40th anniversary of the attempted assassination, Pope Francis said his predecessor had Our Lady to thank for his miraculous survival, stating:

“He was certain that he owed his life to Our Lady of Fatima,” noting that “this makes us aware that our lives and the history of the world are in God’s hands.”

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