Friday, May 13, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we tell the story of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul in 1981.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 13th of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

So- while today’s story about a Pope doesn’t have a talking bronze head, we do have political intrigue, Cold War suspicions, and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II on this day in 1981.

Suppose you’ve followed the show for a while or follow the history of Popes in general. In that case, an “attempted assassination” might not even be the worst thing to happen to a Medieval Pope on any given day, but this was less precedented in the modern age.

I’ve got at least seven assassinated popes between 800 and 1000. We might have almost two dozen more if you want to add the martyred Popes from the early church (it was a dangerous position when the Empire didn’t bolster the Church). And there have been suspected assassination attempts and others that never went far enough to raise suspicion.

But the events of the 13th of May in 1981 shocked even those uninterested in Catholicism. At about 5 pm, as the Pope was preparing for a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, he was driven to the faithful in an open-top jeep (the fiberglass Popemobile came about due to this event). Mehmet Ali Agca- an escaped convict from Turkey, pulled out a 9mm pistol and shot at Pope John Paul II 4 times. Two of the bullets grazed him and hit others, while two lodged in his stomach. He was driven to the hospital, where after 5+ hours of surgery, he was declared to be in stable condition.

Agca was apprehended on the spot. He had a letter that stated he had killed the Pope on behalf of the victims of imperialism in his coat. Years before, he had written a letter to a Turkish newspaper that he would assassinate the Pope if he came to Turkey (the Pope did, Agca did nothing). Agca was also guilty of killing a newspaper editor as a hitman but escaped the Turkish prison and wandered across Eastern Europe before showing up days before the assassination attempt at the Vatican.

The story becomes amazing and bonkers. The amazing part is that shortly after Pope John Paul got out of surgery, he asked to see Agca in jail. There the Pope, in a private audience with his would-be assassin, forgave Mehmet Ali Agca. A picture of the two in prison would be featured on the cover of Time Magazine with the title “Why Forgive?”.

“Forgiveness does not look like a tool for survival in a bad world. But that is what it is”.

The bigger question for the international community was, “why did he do it?” And if recent partisan news drives you crazy… well, same as it ever was.

Some argued that Agca’s being in Bulgaria and his connections there made him a valuable tool of the USSR which saw the new Polish Pope as an existential threat to Communism in that Soviet Satellite state. Elaborate plans for its work were written up and spread throughout a rabid anti-Soviet west. Still, it seemed like conjecture and purposeful misleading for political gain.

An Italian special investigation under the auspices of Berlusconi concluded that the “Bulgaria connection” or the Communist theory was legitimate. This may have been more election year spin. Before his death, Pope John Paul himself denied a Bulgarian or Soviet explanation.

Perhaps it is more likely that he was working with the Grey Wolves- a fascist Pan-Turkish outfit that wanted to unify Turkish and Muslim people against the West. This may be more plausible, but we have little evidence, and Agca has changed his story many times. Perhaps the theories and the deliberate obfuscation for political gain may leave historians with little closure.

Today we remember the event, the attempt, and perhaps we might want to reflect on the act of forgiveness- the assassination attempt of Ali Agca on Pope John Paul II, which occurred on this day in 1981.

The Last Word for today comes from the daily lectionary, which takes us to the book of Daniel- the 7th chapter.

I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
 there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
 and was presented before him.


And to him was given dominion
 and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
 should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
 which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
 that shall not be destroyed.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 13th of May 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who says “no” to Turkish Assassins but “yes” to Turkish delights- the candy we all know about but have never had- he is Christoper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who has learned that some pastors and teachers like to use my illustrations from this pod from the pulpit and in class… please do; you don’t even have to cite me- use them! This is free! I'm van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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