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Popes in Peril – Times of crisis

It came as an unpleasant shock this week when news emerged from Rome that a threatening letter containing three bullets addressed to Pope Francis had been seized by Italian police.  The discovery was made in a postal facility in the small town of Peschiera Borromeo on the outskirts of Milan.  The suspicious package, believed to have originated in France, was intercepted by the staff who alerted the Carabinieri.

On Monday the police announced they had identified the sender but have not released is name.  He is a citizen of France already known to Vatican security.  According to Italian news agency ANSA, the information that most interests investigators is the sender’s location, “because it would raise a different level of alarm to know if he were in France or in St Peter’s Square in Rome.”

Financial Crisis

The threatening message comes amid the continuation of a major trial involving significant figures from the Church.  The “trial of the century”, featuring fraud and embezzlement charges against ten people, including an Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

On the opening day of the trial on July 27, the Cardinal, one of two defendants who attended the largely procedural, seven-hour session, said he remains “obedient” to Pope Francis, who stripped his privileges to enable his appearance before the tribunal.

He is the first Cardinal in history to be indicted by Vatican criminal prosecutors and to be cleared for trial by the pope.

Danger at the Top

Death threats are not unheard of for the man who holds the top spot in the Catholic Church.  Francis’ predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict received similar threats.  In 1970 Archbishop Paul Marcinkus saved Paul VI from an assassination attempt at the airport in Manila when he threw himself at a Bolivian artist who tried to stab the pope.

There were two attempts to assassinate Pope John Paul II before the near-fatal one in 1981.  The first was on 8 November 1979.   A man with a knife was stopped as he tried to enter the Vatican.  He later said he planned to kill the pope.  His name was Luciano Esposito (26) and he was eventually charged with attempted murder.

The second suspected attempt was in Karachi, Pakistan, on 16 February 1981.  A bomb exploded in the city’s National Stadium minutes before the pope was to arrive to celebrate Mass.  Police said the man carrying the bomb was killed and two accomplices injured in the blast at the rear of the VIP stand.

On May 12, 1982, a man broke through the security lines at Mass in Fatima and stabbed Pope John Paul II.  The would-be-assassin Juan Fernandez Krohn was a former ultra-conservative priest.  His attack on the pontiff was as a result of his conviction that Communism had infiltrated the Catholic Church and that John Paul was himself a Communist agent bent on destroying the Church.

Ironically, at the time the pope was in Fatima to give thanks for surviving a first assassination attempt a year earlier in Rome.

Miraculous Escape

On May 13, 1981, a young Turkish man, Mehmet Ali Agca opened fire on the pope’s vehicle in St Peter’s Square with a large Browning handgun.  Four shots were fired; one hit the pope’s abdomen, the other his left elbow.

Four days after the shooting, while still in a critical condition, the pope forgave his assailant.  He asked people to “pray for my brother whom I have sincerely forgiven.”  His sturdy constitution served him well, and his convalescence from a grave condition was relatively quick, though at one point he suffered an infection that nearly killed him.

Agca was acting on behalf of the Communist Secret Service in Bulgaria, a puppet of the KGB whose aim was to neutralize the Pope’s influence in his native Poland.

Making Amends?

In Rome, the present pope who is eighty-four years of age is still recovering from major surgery.  Last month he spent ten days in hospital after undergoing a procedure on his colon.  This was his first major medical treatment since he became pope in 2013.

He has been taking time off from some official duties but has trips planned for later in the year to Hungary, and Slovenia in September, and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November.

There was no comment from the Vatican with regard to the sinister contents sent to Francis.

In the past, he has refused to meet Agca, the man who almost killed his predecessor. John Paul not only forgave Agca but also visited him in prison in 1983.  The photograph of the two of them chatting remains one of the iconic images of the twentieth century.

In December 2014 Agca laid white roses at the tomb of John Paul in tribute to the man whose life he had once come so perilously close to ending.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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