What I Learned When I Met (well, almost) St. Pope John Paul II

What I Learned When I Met (well, almost) St. Pope John Paul II

I saw Pope John Paul II in person a few times in my life. It was during two troublesome spring times in Miami, 1980 and 1981. There was lot of crime and urban unrest. Not yet married and contemplating doing so, in 1980 I thought of visiting my Uncle Carmine and relatives living in the Naples, Italy countryside – Rocca Rainola, after a 10-year absence. I had often visited when I used to live in Spain and Greece with my father, a civilian U. S. Government official working for the Department of Defense attached to NATO. This background experience was instrumental in my developing an identity and interest for issues of an international nature: political, economic, cultural.    

On the way to Naples on my 1980 trip, I decided to revisit Rome and stay for a week or so. On Wednesdays the Pope meets the public at St. Peter’s Square and so I took the metro there that day. Amidst thousands, the Pope strolled to the center of St. Peter’s Square followed by a Vatican entourage into a circular barricaded area. He walked the circle in deep prayer and I was no more than 2 yards from him each time he passed me. It was a thrilling moment for me and I took a typical tourist’s picture. My Catholic faith took a great leap forward.

Another Wednesday, I attended the outdoor Mass held at St. Peter’s. The Mass lasted over two hours and I didn’t remember ever attending a Mass of such duration. The thousands in attendance were quiet, orderly and it turned out to be a beautiful day. Actually, I don’t remember receiving communion. Perhaps the Mass that day was too long; perhaps I was seated at a distance.  

But it was the incident in 1981 that stands out in my mind. I was a little despondent in Miami. The increasing crime rate was getting to me. You could see the city changing so quickly – the Cuban boat lift, riots, civil disorder and criminal behavior were making life difficult. So many incidents of violence witnessed by everyone. The producer of the TV Show ‘Miami Vice’ referred to Miami at that time as international capitalism run amok. I didn’t fully understand yet the torrents of international change  affecting our lives in Miami. I longed for a peaceful environment and culture, my family and relatives in the Naples countryside. From Naples I decided to stay in Rome a few days before the jaunt back home, and prepared for a day at St. Peter’s Square again. It was May 13 – beautiful peaceful Italy, away from the Miami chaos. First I put on a jogging outfit and ran from my hotel to Villa Borghese. Being young at 37 and in good shape made the jog through the park even more of a thrill. When I arrived at St. Peter’s Square, it was packed. Subsequent publications to that fateful day indicated a crowd of 75,000. I could hardly see the Pope but he did drive by slowly, rather than walk to the center of the crowd as in 1980. Noticing he bent down, I lost sight of him. John Paul later said he tried to get a closer look at a pilgrim girl’s picture of the Blessed Virgin, a movement that saved his life. Suddenly – pop ! pop ! All in attendance heard and the crowd got quiet for about 2-3 seconds until we realized the reality of the sounds. Pope John Paul had been shot! How could this happen!? How in Rome, our beloved Pope, our eternal city!? I came here to escape any such street spectacles. I was heart broken.

Immediately someone [assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca] ran from the center of the crowd and they let him pass. No one budged. As I was in good shape and had just arrived from a jog, I knew I could catch him. I began my chase. My confidence grew that I could get him and pictured tackling him. The stunned and motionless pilgrims on that fateful day, witnessed two young gentlemen running through the crowd – me and the assassin, Ali Acga. There was a crowd barricade approaching, similar to the barricade where I first saw John Paul II praying in 1980, but I knew I could hurdle it. As I began my jump, two thoughts simultaneously and instantly entered my mind. If I do catch him, he could shoot me too. “Let the carabinieri [police] do it”, I said to myself. And, if I continue running, the people and crowd and carabinieri might think me the assassin or at least an accomplice. I stopped – I believe it sanity over cowardice. A few hours later after all the chaos, the carabinieri reported a capture and the rest is history.

A few years later Pope John Paul II came to Miami but I did not go to see him. I decided no prayers of the Pope could save this city. A torrential rain destroyed the gathering, confirming my beliefs, and shortly thereafter, we moved to St. Paul, MN. Another adventure for sure.  

Pope John Paul II was a great Pope and a great geopolitician in his way. He more than anyone has moved me to a deepening of my Catholic faith and understanding of changing international trends and issues – political, economic, cultural. I learned from Pope John Paul II that no society based on left, right or centrist ideology can satisfy a people’s desire for peace and happiness without Jesus Christ. More specifically, the purpose of Pope John Paul II’s efforts are to stem the breakdown of Christian values and beliefs from the secular propaganda of unbridled capitalism, post modernism, liberalism, feminism and misguided socialist ideology.  

I sure wish the people of the United States could see this is what is happening here. Soon after this incident, I married my current wife and we have 3 children and grandchildren and active members of St. Therese de Lisieux Parish in Wellington, Fl. This is what I learned from Pope John Paul II and my visits to St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

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Written by
Michael Baglino