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Catholics are treasuring in their hearts the rich history associated with May 13.
First, and perhaps most notably, the date is remembered for Our Lady's first appearance to three shepherd children near Fatima, Portugal in 1917. But Catholics also cannot forget that exactly 40 years ago today, a near-fatal attack was made on now-Pope St. John Paul II.
Pope Francis on Thursday told Vatican pilgrims John Paul II "was certain that he owed his life to Our Lady of Fatima." He added, "This makes us aware that our lives and the history of the world are in God's hands."
In the book, Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium, John Paul shared how he felt about the shooting: "I remember the way to the hospital. I remained conscious for a while. I had the feeling that I would survive. I was suffering, there was reason to be afraid, but I had such a strange trust."
The would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca, a citizen of Turkey, shot the pope four times, including once in the stomach. Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, the pope's then-personal secretary, recalls the scene: "In those moments my heart was breaking with pain. The sight of a bloody white cassock will stay with me forever."
Dziwisz claims the Soviets were behind the assassination attempt. The battle for a free Poland was at its height in 1981. Two years before, in 1979, the Polish pope returned to his homeland in triumph, re-establishing the nation's love for the Church and giving Poles hope for freedom.
The following year, the trade union Solidarity was founded. It was the first taste of freedom the Polish people had known since its absorption by the Soviet Union in 1945. The push for freedom was momentous. Solidarity's membership was peaking in May, reaching its highest level in September of that year.
While there is no evidence the KGB was involved, it is plausible given John Paul's persistent resistance of communism.
Angelus reports that while he was recovering in the hospital, John Paul realized "the date of the attack was not accidental. It was also on May 13, when the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in Fatima."
No doubt, the pope would have considered the possibility the assassination attempt was simply another example of Russia spreading its errors.
The Fatima apparitions took place in the six months prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The Fatima children related that Our Lady talked with them about Russia, warning that if Russia were not consecrated to God, it would "spread errors throughout the world" — a phrase almost universally interpreted as referring to the error of communism.
The Fatima apparitions culminated on Oct. 13, 1917, in what's known as "the Miracle of the Sun." An estimated crowd of up to 100,000 pilgrims witnessed the sun zig-zagging across the sky. A number of other miraculous phenomena occurred simultaneously.
On the same day in Russia, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik Revolution, setting off a wave of chaos that envelopes the world even to this day.
Immediately following the attempt on his life, as John Paul was being transported to the hospital, he told his trusted secretary that he forgave his Muslim attacker. Later, he visited Ağca in prison. Many in the world considered the pope's generous forgiveness a miracle as well.
A year later, John Paul traveled to Fatima where he placed a bullet that struck him into Our Lady's crown. It was his way of paying tribute to Our Lady, whom he believes saved his life.
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