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This book is for my grandson
T HAPPENED FASTER
than the blink of an eye.
Indeed, for a split second, the excited, adoring crowd had not comprehended that
had happened at all.
One moment, the white-clad figure, holding on to the iron bar at the back seat of the white Jeep with the left hand, was blessing the faithful in a slow, circular motion of the right hand as the vehicle advanced gently through the human mass filling St. Peter's Square in the Vatican under the azure-blue sky of the May afternoon.
The next moment, the figure in white was slumped, seemingly lifeless, in a pool of crimson blood sloshing in the rear of the Jeep. Those nearest to him thought they had heard that very instant sudden dry reports of a gunâ
crack!, crack!, crack!
Astonished pigeons, aroused in their quiet perches in the baroque, seventeenth-century Gian Lorenzo Bernini colonnade that maternally embraces the square, fled to safety behind the basilica, their gray wings in flight a sinister loud beat.
Then the savage, desperate cry from thousands of throats in a hundred tongues rose to the heavens: “They killed the Pope! They killed the Pope!Â .Â .Â .”
*Â Â *Â Â *
However, Gregory XVII, the greatly beloved but often irritatingly controversial French pope of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, the ruler of a billion souls, went on livingâmost happilyâalthough one of the three bullets fired at him at close range had passed within millimeters of his aorta, exiting below the right shoulder blade. The second had perforated the abdominal cavity and had to be excised. The third bullet had missed the pope altogether.
Yahweh, the Lord, evidently had not yet been ready to summon him. It obviously would be done in God's good time. Gregory XVII, who was an Old Testament scholar and had both deep faith and a philosophical bent of mind, was always quietly and joyfully resigned to accept the Lord's will.
The instant he had regained consciousness in the hospital bed, the pope remembered that Yahweh had once attempted to kill Moses, his best friend and conversation partner, then changed his mind, but, after the forty years in wilderness, did decree his death. Gregory XVII had memorized from the Book of Deuteronomy the Lord's words to the 120-year-old Moses: “Behold, your days approach that you must dieÂ .Â .Â . Get up into this mountain, unto mount Nebo, and behold the land of Canaan, which I gave unto the children of Israel for a possession, and die in the mount whither you go up, and be gathered unto your peopleÂ .Â .Â .”âand the passage in Deuteronomy: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LordÂ .Â .Â . and no man knows of his sepulchre unto this day.”
So Gregory XVII said to himself, “This time Yahweh changed his mind about me,” grimacing with satisfaction even as sharp pain shot through his body. “The Lord chose to spare me today,” he mused, “but perhaps he will not the next time. Behold His mysterious ways.”
In his penumbral condition between anesthesized, sedated sleep and half-consciousness, the pope wondered, once more, whether Moses really ever existed. It was something of an intellectual hobby for Gregory XVII, since young priesthood, to discuss Moses with Jewish Bible scholars; it covered the whole range of Jewish scholarship and beliefs, with all the contradictions contained over thousands of years in the Torah and the Talmud, and the Rabbinical Commentators in the Talmud and the Midrash, the collections of storytelling. It included, of course, Christian scholarship, which often tended to be more rigorous faith than actual scholarship, and even Freud's
Moses and Monotheism,
and his doubts about the historic Moses. That
existed was beyond question, and Gregory XVII's inclination had always been to conclude that there had been
Now, immobilized in bed with intravenous lines and mouth
and nose intubations and staring through narrowed eyes at the blinding ceiling light, the pope asked himself whether his lifelong secret penchant toward comparing himself to Moses was not sacrilegious, blasphemous or, at least, unspeakably arrogant? Gregory XVII had never forgotten that Christian theology always saw Jesus as “the new Moses,” and this late afternoon the martyred pope, sedated as he was, allowed his mind to wanderâwondering whether God, in sparing his life, had confirmed that he
the second Moses, preparing the world from the throne of St. Peter for the coming of the Messiah.
He was sufficiently conscious to know that he would have to rethink it all more deeply when he felt better and strongerâand in firmer command of his mindâthough the image now flashed in his memory of Michelangelo's Carrara marble statue of Moses in Rome's Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Gregory's favorite art object in the whole world. He kept finding excuses to stop and pray there as often as possible: Just seeing the massive Moses, the pope felt invigorated.
And, half dreaming, Gregory suddenly remembered an amusing fantasy he had read decades ago about the Plagues of Egypt, with the Lord casting an
Plague in the form of a pharaonic pop song,
Take Me to the Nile, Mamma!
which had spread like wildfire across the land. The subliminal power of the song had paralyzed all activity as the entire population stopped working to hum it everywhere day and night, with Ramses having been warned that the
epidemic would never cease unless he let the children of Israel goâled by Moses. In absolute desperation, Ramses caved in,
instantly vanished, and Exodus was on.
This Mosaic obsession is ridiculous, Gregory thought as he slid back into deep sleep. But, unquestionably, Yahweh was testing him. But for what? And who was the human agency, the tool or instrument of the Lord's will, who had struck at him on St. Peter's Square? Someday the truth would come outâor will it?
*Â Â *Â Â *
What had saved the sixty-one-year-old pontiff apart from God's will were his powerful athlete's constitution and robust health, the speed with which he had been rushed in an ambulance to the Gemelli Clinic barely two miles away, and, ultimately, the
extraordinary skill of the Italian surgeon, Dr. Francesco Crucitti, who happened to be on duty in the Emergency Room that lazy afternoon.
To Gregory XVII, of course, those magnificent but profane facts were
âdivinely ordained by Yahweh when He chose to save himâand he never tired of pointing out publicly and privately that the assassination attempt had occurred on May thirteenth, the day of Our Lady of FÃ¡tima. The pope felt a special veneration for the FÃ¡tima Virgin at whose shrine in Portugal the following year he had placed the bullet that had nearly shattered his heart. It had been recovered from the hand of a young American nun into which it had penetrated after traversing Gregory's body. She had stood in the crowd ten feet on the other side of the white Jeep when the assassin, a mysterious Turk in his early twenties, had fired his gun at the pope at almost point-blank range. Our Lady of FÃ¡tima, Gregory believed, had been watching over him in fulfillment of God's will. She had performed the miracle of protecting his life when the Turk had squeezed his three shots from a sturdy Walther automatic pistol just as the pope was completing his relaxed tour of St. Peter's Square after holding his regular Wednesday General Audience.
In those days, the public audiences took place in the afternoon in the open, in front of St. Peter's Basilica, with a minimum of security. It had never occurred to anybody, even in this age of terrorism, that the pontiff could be the target of a murder plot. As was his custom, therefore, Gregory rode in his Jeep along rows of pilgrims, Roman faithful, and tourists from all over the globe, blessing them and waving smilingly in response to enraptured shouts and hand-clapping of applause:
Viva il Papaâ! Vive le Pape! Long Live the Pope!
The French pope, just three years on St. Peter's throne after his surprise election as the first “foreign”ânon-Italianâpontiff in four and a half centuries, was convinced that frequent direct contact with his flock was essential to his pastoral mission. There had to be a flow of emotion and immediacy between him and the believers if the Church and religion were to have any lasting meaning as the new century and millennium approached. Besides, the gregarious Gregory, who was an extrovert as well as a
mystical, introspective, but also highly pragmatic personality, thrived on rapport with peopleâthe more the betterâand lost no opportunity meeting with crowds on every conceivable occasion. It recharged and rejuvenated him.
The Wednesday General Audiences were the most natural such occasions, and the vast square in front of St. Peter's Basilica was always filled with thousands upon thousands who hoped for a glance from the pope from just a few feet away, perhaps a split second of eye contact with him, perhaps a chance to touch his garments as he drove by ever so slowly. It made Gregory visibly and palpably human to them, and made the crowd, to him, more than just a faceless abstraction of the faithfulânot the way it had been not so long ago when the pontiff was carried on a palanquin during public appearances, looking down on his people.
*Â Â *Â Â *
But it also made it possible that day for the young Turk, who after his capture gave his name as Agca Circlic, to remain unnoticed within the ranks of pilgrims massed on the right side of the square, as one faced the basilica, excitedly awaiting the approach of the papal Jeep. He was the “human agency,” as Gregory would put it later, who had carried out the will of the Lord toward himâthough only up to a point. There was no reason for anyone to pay attention to the Turk, unshaven and wearing an ill-pressed, food-stained baggy light suit.
Circlic had arrived at the square two hours before the General Audience, standing patiently on the spot he had selected as the best for his purposes after observing on two previous Wednesday afternoons the pattern of the pope's Jeep tour among the pilgrims. His heavy pistol was snugly concealed in the left inside pocket of his suit jacket. Circlic's meticulous training in Turkey as a professional hit manâa political terroristâhad taught him how to measure precisely the distance to his target and the bullet's velocity before producing the pistol from the pocket and firing. He was a fine shooter and he knew that it had to be accomplished in a single graceful fluid motion, based on an instinctive mathematical calculation.