In his very calm voice, Pope John Paul II told me that he did not want the United States government to make an issue of the 1981 plot to assassinate him. It was Oct. 1, 1989, in the pope’s private study after the public presentation of my credentials as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
The Vatican was aware of my interest in the subject, thanks to an article I coauthored in 1985 that examined the attempt on the pope’s life. After discussing several official matters, I brought up the issue, simply saying that I was prepared to ask my government to continue the investigation into who had initiated the plot. “No,” the Holy Father said, “not now.” Those measured words have echoed in my memory ever since. With them, the pope effectively closed the subject and I was left to speculate on what he meant by “not now.”
Two months later, a dinner with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, helped me understand. He told me that for two years the pope and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had been communicating secretly. This started in 1987 when during a visit of Cardinal Casaroli to the Kremlin, Mr. Gorbachev spoke to him about his family. He revealed that his mother, Maria, was a deaconess in the Orthodox church. She had baptized him and when they were alone in her cottage in Privolnoye she would take down an icon and bless him. Astonished and wary of a Soviet trick, I reported back to Washington.
It came as a surprise when the Soviets decided to have Mr. Gorbachev visit the pope en route to see President George H.W. Bush later that month. It was evident that the two leaders had reached a certain understanding. Mr. Gorbachev arranged for 100 paintings of Russian people to be on display at the Vatican during his visit. Most of them reflected the religious traditions of the Russian people. During the formal opening of the exhibit, I watched as the head of the largest Christian church and the leader of the atheist Soviet state studied the paintings together with enthusiasm pointing out various details to each other.
The following day, just before Mr. Gorbachev’s meeting with President Bush, the State Department instructed me to meet with Cardinal Casaroli and find out what the Soviet president and the pope had discussed. The Bush administration, not yet sure what to make of the Soviet leader, needed to know the extent of the thaw in Vatican-Soviet relations.
The pope hoped to visit the Soviet Union, but in response to Mr. Gorbachev’s invitation, he outlined several tasks the Soviets needed to carry out before he visited. They included guarantees of religious freedom, human rights and the reestablishment of the Ukrainian Catholic church, which Stalin had decimated in the 1930s. Unsure of the sincerity of the Soviet glasnost and perestroika campaigns, State Department leaders instructed me to ask the cardinal if Mr. Gorbachev could be trusted. While his response was not specific, I reported that he said yes on behalf of the Holy Father.
The church approaches human events in a supernatural context that transcends politics and traditional diplomacy and, to the American observer, this can be frustratingly mysterious. Reconciliation in the human family was always a priority in the Holy Father’s actions. Despite our attempts to justify the U.S. action against Iraq in 1991 as in accordance with “just war” tradition, his firm opposition remained clear. He cautioned me that all means but war should be used to free Kuwait. War, he said, was the “road of no return.” At the same time he condemned the actions of Saddam Hussein. In this way the pope confounded many who did not understand his unique approach to world affairs.
Long after the world put the Cold War behind it and seemingly lost interest in digging up the skeletons of the past, the pope, in his gentle way, raised the issue of who was behind the plot to assassinate him. Just before John Paul’s death and 24 years after the attempted assassination, the English translation of his new book, Memory and Identity, became available. In the epilogue, he wrote, “[Mehmet] Ali Agca was a professional assassin. This means that the attack was not of his own initiative. It was someone else’s order; someone else had commissioned him to carry it out.” But who? He left that question to the judges and journalists who investigated the attempt over the years. A significant portion of these including Italian magistrates, American journalists and many others came to the conclusion that Mr. Agca was handled by the Darzavna Sigurnost, the Bulgarian secret service, at the behest of the Soviet KGB whose leaders feared a Polish pope would lead to mass resistance in the Soviet empire.
Pope John Paul II has passed on. Many things have changed in the countries long suspected of collaboration in the plot. History should document all the facts about who initiated and worked on the plot to kill Pope John Paul II, whom many consider one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. The United States should work with other governments and issue a no-holds-barred public report on the conspiracy that would have taken the Holy Father away from us in 1981, possibly preventing the remarkably gentle collapse of the Soviet empire and the bursts of freedom and faith that followed.