Friday, May 13, 2022

Remembering May 13, ... 1981

May 13th commemorates the first appearance of the Virgin Mary to the three children of Fatima, Portugal in the year 1917. 

May 13th is also a day that commemorates another event, an event undoubtedly linked to that other afternoon in 1917, which could conceivably be remembered with its own “optional memorial” at some point in the future: the memorial of Saint John Paul II’s Confession of Faith. On this day, forty-one years ago, he shed his blood in Saint Peter’s Square.

I remember very well May 13, 1981.

I was an 18 year old boy, a few weeks from graduation from public high school, walking through the noisy hallway. It was around lunchtime in America. More than two thousand kids were in motion in the halls of that school. Not many of them were Catholic. I was going to my "home room" classroom. I can still see the door in my mind. I can see the hallway. I was almost ready to reach for the door. It’s something I had done hundreds of time; it was almost automatic....

A girl from class came up to me; she was also Catholic, a nice girl, though I didn’t know her very well... But I could see she was in shock. Here face was pale, so pale....

She said, "The Pope has been shot!" Forty-one years later, the astonishment of that moment hasn’t left me.

My memories of what happened the rest of the school day, however, are fragmented. Still, I have vivid images from that afternoon, and the time that followed. At some point, we were all in our various classrooms watching the news reports. The routine of the school day was utterly broken. The potheads and the jocks, the smart kids, the nerds, the heavy metal kids, the tough kids, girls and boys, all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, kids with all kinds of beliefs and ideologies and adolescent confusion, students and teachers too: we all watched the television and we were all united by the shock that had jolted our common humanity.

It was a moment when we realized that we were just people, just frail people holding onto our own lives by the thinnest of threads.

On television, the newscasters (themselves visibly disturbed) described with diagrams the surgery that was to take place. All over the world people prayed. I felt numb, with people I had known for the last four years without ever really knowing them, in a high school classroom watching the TV that was on in the room. Did I pray?

My Jewish friends wept and hugged me, as if the Pope were my own father (which, of course, he was - in a sense that I had scarcely begun to understand). Kids who called themselves atheists sat with their heads in their hands. It was like everyone's heart was trying to pray, somehow. Everyone was suffering.

It was like the whole human race was attacked on May 13, 1981. Somewhere in their depths, people knew it. They felt it.

History was riding a bullet fired at close range into a man's abdomen by a professional assassin who knew what he was doing, who never missed. And on that day, he didn't miss.

But “It was a mother's hand that guided the bullet's path,” the Pope said later.

Can you possibly imagine what the world would be like now if that bullet had not been “guided by a mother's hand” forty-one years ago, on this day? Many things would have been different, and - as awful and dangerous as many of the events are in today's news - I think life might have been much worse if John Paul II had died in 1981. In any case, there is much to be grateful for: the Pope’s survival, his sacrifice, and his courage and endurance for 24 more years, were tremendous graces for the Church and the world.

Our Lady of Fatima, thank you for saving the life of Saint John Paul II!