January 19, 2006

Two Photographs

On Monday afternoon, Jan. 9, my priest secretary and I flew to Rome. On Tuesday an all-day meeting concerning the budgets of the Holy See and the Vatican City State kept me occupied. On Wednesday in the morning, we participated in a public audience with our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and concluded the day with meetings until supper time.

Thus it was that I did not have an opportunity to look through the Roman newspapers until Thursday morning. We were flying home that afternoon, and there was packing and some shopping to do. Still, after Mass and breakfast I paged through three of Rome’s most popular newspapers. The lead article in all three brought back memories, sad memories but inspiring memories too.

On Wednesday, May 13, 1981, I was in my apartment in a residence for priests on the outskirts of Rome writing a report for one of the offices or, as we say, "Congregations" of the Holy See for which I was a consultor. At 5:20 p.m. a knock came at my door. The priest who lived in the apartment next to mine rushed in. "They shot the Holy Father," he shouted. "I think they killed him!"

I ran into the bedroom of my apartment and put on the radio. The announcer was emotional. I could hardly understand what he was saying. Soon, another who was more under control took over. In the Piazza San Pietro, he reported, as the Holy Father was making his way through the crowd in his open car, a young man drew a gun from his pocket and fired at him three times. A nun and a layman from the crowd grabbed the man and held him until the police took him into custody. Meanwhile, the open car with the pontiff sprawled across the backseat, sped on to a Roman hospital known as the Clinica Gemelli.

The priest who had knocked at my door sank into a chair. Before long, other priests joined us. All had rosaries in their hands, and one was quietly weeping.

After several minutes, the second radio announcer informed his listeners that Pope John Paul II was alive and in the care of several of Rome’s best physicians and surgeons. He promised regular reports as information was released by the hospital. We priests sat in silence for a while and then, without anyone saying a word, betook ourselves to the fourth-floor chapel of an adjacent residence for priests where we celebrated Mass together each morning.

There we found the four Polish sisters who were in charge of the two residences. They were reciting Polish prayers punctuated by muffled sobs. It all seemed unreal. At first, I was shocked. Soon I found myself becoming angry as well. "Who would do such a thing?" I kept asking myself; and over the next several months the answer became known in radio, television and newspaper reports.

The name of the culprit was Mehmet Ali Agca. He was a native of Turkey who had killed a journalist in his homeland and somehow escaped from prison after a trial that had found him guilty of murder. Before arriving in Rome early in May of 1981, he had traveled through Bulgaria, Switzerland and central Italy. Once in the Eternal City, he rented himself an apartment and began a thorough study of the area around the Piazza San Pietro. Why he did what he did on May 13 and whether he acted on his own or on the orders of others, he never revealed; and even now we do not know.

Whatever of this, his victim, while still in danger of death in the Clinica Gemelli, forgave him for his crime and made the act of forgiveness known to all the world.

I can still see in my mind’s eye the remarkable photograph of the Successor of St. Peter propped up in a hospital bed and wearing a white hospital gown. He was pale gaunt, and struggling for breath. Nonetheless, he had a message from the Savior to teach; and teach it he did. As I studied the photograph, I could almost hear the words of the Master: "If you forgive men their offenses, your Heavenly Father will forgive you your offenses" (Matthew 6:14).

In December of 1983, Pope John Paul II, still showing the physical effects of the attempt on his life, went to the Rebibbia Prison in Rome, met with Mehmet Ali Agca, and repeated his act of forgiveness. A photograph of the two of them sitting face to face in the prison cell was, like the earlier photograph, transmitted across the world. The message of the Savior was driven home again with immense power and beauty.

The three Roman newspapers that I looked through on Thursday all retold the drama of Mehmet Ali Agca in detail. In 2000 he completed his prison sentence in Rome and was released to the authorities in Turkey, where he was again incarcerated for the murder he had committed in that country before he shot the pontiff. He would be released in a few days, the newspapers announced, and many in Rome, they continued, were not at all pleased. One lawyer was said to have declared that Mehmet Ali Agca should never have been released from either prison, and another added that in his judgment even a life sentence was too good for "this heinous criminal."

I freely admit that reasonable arguments are regularly adduced for both reactions. It is indeed unsettling to know that a man who has murdered one human being and tried to murder a second roams the world scot-free. Be that as it may, as I set the Roman newspapers aside last Thursday and went to complete my packing, my thoughts focused not on the murderer who was soon to take his leave from the Turkish prison but rather on the great and noble Bishop of Rome whom he had sought to destroy.

What Pope John Paul II did both in the hospital bed and in the Roman prison is for me a blessing of the greatest value. Will there ever be someone in my life whom I would not be willing to forgive for an offense against me? If so, I should know how to handle the situation. All I need to do is obtain a copy of two famous photographs of the pontiff, one in a hospital room and the other in a prison cell, study them prayerfully, and embrace the message they deliver. It is a message first heard from the lips of an itinerant preacher in the Holy Land 2000 years ago. It is brief and to the point: "Forgive, and you shall be forgiven" ( Luke 6:37).


Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York