May 13 marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Vatican Radio’s retired director of the English Program recalls those events.
Sean-Patrick Lovett, a now-retired Vatican Radio journalist, recalls the fateful events of May 13, 1981, which took place when he was 24-years-old and working that afternoon to prepare the evening English-news broadcast.
He had focused his broadcast on what was to be the subject of Pope John Paul II’s catechesis for the Wednesday General Audience, precisely the 90th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the dignity of human work and workers.
He recalls that the General Audience that day had been delayed until late afternoon, due to the unseasonably warm weather in Rome for that time of year.
Sean-Patrick Lovett, who dedicated over 40 years of his journalistic career to Vatican Radio, also as head of the English Section, spoke about that historic day in an interview with Vatican News.
Q: What do you recall from that day?
It was twenty minutes past five. How do I know? Because the gunshots rang out at 17 minutes past five, and that’s easy to remember because in international time, it’s 17:17. And 17, if you live in Italy, is a very unlucky number. It’s the equivalent of our Anglo-Saxon unlucky 13. So it was 5:17 pm when those for four gun shots rang out in Saint Peter’s Square.
I was not doing a live radio commentary because there was no live English commentary at that time and the Italian commentary hadn’t started yet, because the Pope was still doing his second round of the square and saying hello to the crowds. And he had just picked up Sara Bartoli – that is her name and she is about 40 today and was a few months old then. She’s the curly-haired little girl you see in the black and white pictures. And she’s credited with one of the reasons the Pope did not die. Of course, he credits Our Lady of Fatima, and has good reason to do so with May 13th being her feast day, but he had literally handed Sara Bartoli, this little girl, back to her parents and one of the theories is that’s what made Ali Ağca lose his aim because he was waiting for that moment, and when he shot, he missed.
Q: At this point what did you do?
It’s twenty past five in the afternoon, you are in the office working on the program, and doors start opening. It’s not like today; there were very few people. We were a very tight, small family here in the Radio. Doors started opening and people were running around. Two words: chaos and confusion. No one knows the situation. You’ve heard there have been shots in Saint Peter’s Square, that the Pope has been shot, that he is dead. I remember a lady from the Polish Program on the floor crying as I ran down the corridor, weeping uncontrollably. I was 24 years of age, what are you going to do if you are 24 years of age, you’re a journalist and they have just said the Pope has been shot? You want to be on the spot. I was out of the building, up the Via della Conciliazione, and running to Saint Peter’s Square. But you cannot get near to the Square with the sirens, the police, and the place is absolute chaos, people are running away from the Square towards you. And anybody you try to stop is telling you something different. You are hearing that bombs have gone off, there were four assassins, the Pope is dead, everybody is dead, so it was chaos and confusion. I came back to the Radio. There was an emergency meeting on what to say. This is 1981, there was no internet. They’re turning to Vatican Radio for information.
Q: We have a clip of Vatican Radio’s Benedetto Nardacci and his live commentary of the events. What did he recount to you?
The first thing is we met with Fr. Roberto Tucci, later Cardinal Tucci who was then director general of the Radio, for his voice since he was the one to give the news, since we had no definite news. We only knew the Pope had been shot, and that he was still breathing when he got into the ambulance, and that he’s now in the operating theatre and it’s five and a half hours later. He was not on the air yet, the commentary had not begun yet. He was having a cigarette at the back of his booth when he heard the shots and the microphone went live on the air. He told me afterwards that he thought it was a car backfiring in the Square, because that’s what it sounded like. It took several seconds to figure out and realize there are no cars in Saint Peter’s Square, and then of course the sequence of gun shots and the realization that something terrible had happened. Benedetto Nardacci after doing the radio commentary, he knew as much as we did, which was nothing.
Then the phones started ringing, because I repeat, 1981 Vatican Radio was in its glory years and was still a very important, The source of information where you would go to find out. So people were calling in from all over the world, and there wasn’t a lot we could say except the Pope is being operated on right now and that someone has been arrested, and the theories were crazy at the time.
Q: And the following days?
The first huge event was of course when the Pope did come around. The assassination attempt was on the Wednesday, and he chose to pray the Regina Coeli from the Gemelli hospital on the Sunday. And again, that was our Vatican Radio technicians in the room with him and the sound of his voice. Rome literally stood still. Nothing moved in the city while everybody stopped in their cars or homes to listen to his voice. And of course the first thing he says is, I forgive the brother – “il fratello” – the brother who did this to me. We all remember the visit to the jail, but we forget that took place two years later. It was the 27th of December 1983 when the Pope visited the jail, and those incredible 20 minutes of him talking to his would-be killer. But the first pardon came within days during that Regina Coeli address when he said I forgive the brother and I pray for him.
Q: And looking at when he visited Ali Ağca in prison, how did you report on that encounter?
The Pope had totally recovered by that stage. Everybody considered it a miracle. If you go back and read the medical bulletins of the time, because we were following the medical bulletins. Every time the doctor would come out and give us an update, that was the story, that was all we had, and whatever we could piece together. The Pope met with Ali Ağca’s mother in 1987, he met with his brother ten years later. He maintained a relationship with this family. Some people think that’s weird that he would do so, but it fits perfectly within the scheme of John Paul’s idea of forgiveness and his witness to forgiveness.
The prison visit was immense and of course there were no microphones, there were just a few stills, Ali Ağca and his blue knitted jersey and the two of them sitting much too close for comfort during a Covid pandemic. The Pope literally leaning on his knees – there was this physical contact which would lead many people to say he was listening to Ali Ağca’s confession. All we know is what John Paul II himself tells us in his last book published in 2005, “Memory and Identity”, when he relates that visit and says in his own words that I can’t tell you what we said, but we did talk for 21 minutes. And at the end of it the Pope himself admits that Ali Ağca was an assassin. He uses that word, but as such he says he wasn’t the one who was calling the shots. Who was remains one of the great unanswered questions and ongoing mysteries of the journalistic world.