For years there was a single cobblestone in St. Peter’s Square that was painted red, marking the place where blood was shed. Now, in place of a cobblestone, there is a simple white plaque with the coat-of-arms of St. John Paul II. There are no words, just the Roman numerals: XIII V MCMLXXXI. It marks the date John Paul was shot, May 13, 1981.
Today is the fortieth anniversary of that assassination attempt on John Paul. It falls on Ascension Thursday, but usually Catholics observe it as the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, commemorating the date of the first Marian apparition in 1917 to the shepherd children.
George Weigel has written that “immersion in anniversaries—the reclamation of the past as a platform from which to launch out to the future—was an integral part of Karol Wojtyła’s experience as a Pole.” To fully understand the meaning of what happened forty years ago—in the mind of the Polish pope, at least—it is necessary to go back to 1966 and ahead to 2000. And even, we might add, 2021.
The dominant anniversary that shaped John Paul’s life as a Polish pastor was 1966, the millennium of Poland’s Christian faith, the baptism in 966 of Prince Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty. During the Polish millennium, Wojtyła learned a great deal about how to be a bishop from the indomitable Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, archbishop of Warsaw and primate of Poland from 1948 to 1981. In 1953, the Polish regime arrested Wyszynski on trumped-up charges and held him under house arrest for three years.
In 1956 Wyszynski was freed. He had put his time to good use. Upon release he announced an ambitious decade-long program for the millennium of 1966. He would call it the “Great Novena”: nine years of evangelization, catechesis, and formation to prepare for 1966, when all of Poland would recommit to its baptismal vows. The message was clear: Poland was a Christian country, no matter the atheism of the incumbent regime. Its Catholic faith would be renewed during the Great Novena; cultural resistance would be the Church’s defense of the Polish people against the Soviet-imposed regime.
Cardinal Wyszynski sent a replica of Poland’s national patroness, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, on a tour of every parish in Poland. When the communists clumsily seized the image, Wyszynski ordered the processions to continue with an empty frame. The crowds only increased.
In 1966, Wyszynski celebrated the great millennium before an immense gathering at Częstochowa, with Archbishop Wojtyła of Kraków at his side. The primate had invited St. Paul VI to attend; the regime blocked the invitation. When John Paul first arrived in Poland in June 1979, he opened the homily that ended the Soviet empire with a reference to the 1966 millennium. He was now doing what Paul VI had been prevented from doing. The Polish millennium was complete.
So momentous were the millennial celebrations that Cardinal Wyszynski came to be known simply as the Primate of the Millennium. Thus when the senior Polish cardinal spoke to the junior Polish cardinal on the occasion of his election as pope, his words resounded in the very depths of Karol Wojtyła’s Polish and Catholic soul. “Cardinal Wyszynski said to me: ‘If the Lord has called you, you must take the Church into the third millennium!’” John Paul revealed in 1994. The Primate of the Millennium was passing the torch to the Pope of the Third Millennium.
“I understood then, that I must take the Church of Christ into the third millennium with prayer and with different initiatives,” John Paul explained. “However, I realized that this wasn’t enough. She had to be introduced with suffering . . . the Pope had to be attacked, he had to suffer so that every family, so that the world, would see that there is, so to speak, a higher Gospel, the Gospel of suffering.”
John Paul brought many initiatives with him from Poland to Rome. But above all, he launched the Church into the third millennium. “Preparing for the Year 2000 has become as it were a hermeneutical key of my Pontificate,” he would write in 1994.
What then would have happened if he were killed nineteen years short of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000?
While John Paul lay in hospital recovering from his wounds after the assassination attempt, Cardinal Wyszynski lay in a Warsaw hospital, dying of abdominal cancer. The two great Polish prelates spoke by phone from their respective beds. The primate, gasping for breath, asked for the Holy Father’s blessing. No doubt both wondered about whether the millennial prophecy would be fulfilled. Wyszynski would die on May 28.
John Paul recovered, attributing his survival to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, on whose feast day the shooting took place. He sent the bullet from his body to the shrine, where it was placed in the statue’s crown. He went on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving on the first anniversary, 1982, and again on the tenth anniversary in 1991.
Then, in the midst of the Great Jubilee, he returned to Fatima, despite having decided that there would be no papal trips that year aside from the epic biblical pilgrimage. The ostensible purpose was the beatification of two of the shepherd children, Jacinta and Francisco. But the real reason became evident when he arrived at the shrine and knelt before the statue, perhaps looking up at the bullet that had ripped apart his insides nineteen years earlier. Then he presented a gift, a small box, to the image of Our Lady of Fatima.
It was a ring. Not the ring he wore everyday, but a special ring given him by the Primate of the Millennium upon his election as pope. In symbolically giving the ring to the shrine at Fatima, John Paul was declaring that the mission had been accomplished.
The primate had given him a mission, and that mission was mortally threatened on May 13, 1981. His miraculous recovery made the completion of the mission possible. That recovery was Mary’s doing, as John Paul put it: “One hand fired the bullet, another hand guided it.”
At Fatima in May 2000, John Paul ordered the famous “third secret” of the apparitions to be revealed. He read it as a mysterious prophecy of the assassination attempt, but also as an indication of divine mercy, delivered through the instrument of the Blessed Mother. The lines of Providence were all made clear—from Częstochowa to Rome to Fatima, from 1966 to 1981 to 2000, from the millennial primate to the millennial pope.
Cardinal Wyszynski was born in 1901 and died in 1981. In recognition of those dates, both houses of the Polish parliament declared 2021—the 120th anniversary of his birth and the 40th of his death—to be the “Year of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.” The Poles know and love their anniversaries.
In a marvelous twist of Providence, the primate will be declared Blessed Stefan this September. The beatification was originally scheduled for last June, but the pandemic delayed it to this anniversary year. It seems fitting for the Primate of the Millennium, and is no doubt pleasing to the millennial pope who was brought to the threshold of death forty years ago and recovered to lead the world across the threshold of hope into the third millennium.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.