Thirty-five years after Saint John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square, a witness from the front rows of the security barricades says that the now-canonized Pope offers an example – and a challenge – of forgiveness for children who witness violence.
For witnesses and victims of violence, many experience the temptation of hopelessness, despair and even hatred, David DePerro told CNA in an interview.
“Then you think of John Paul visiting Mehmet Ali Agca,” DePerro said, pointing to the Pope’s visit to the man who attempted to assassinate him on May 13, 1981. “In that respect, it’s extremely annoying,” DePerro said with a laugh, “because you have to forgive. You just have to.”
May 13, 1981
In 1981, David DePerro was nine years old, living with his siblings and parents in WĂĽrzburg, West Germany, where his father was stationed as a member of the U.S. Army. In May of that year, his family took their second trip to Rome along with a tour group from the Army base. As one of three children, David was paired as seat mates with a young priest, Fr. Rachly, for the entirety of the bus ride from West Germany to Italy.
On May 13, the group went to the Pope’s weekly Wednesday audience, and “all the kids crowded up to the front” in order to shake hands with the Pope and wave as he drove by in the Popemobile. David and his siblings were up against the security barricade along the open-air vehicle’s route in St. Peter’ square, and the Pope drove by as they reached out. Several minutes later, the Popemobile cirled back so Pope John Paul II could greet the children and faithful gathered on the other side of the aisle cleared out for the vehicle’s route.
The Popemobile passed by again, this time across from DePerro’s group. “It was then that I heard the popping sounds,” he recalled. “That was all it was- popping sounds: I thought they were fireworks.” Still the sound of fireworks was unsettling, odd: David had only ever seen fireworks before on the Fourth of July or New Years’ Eve – not on a Wednesday in broad daylight.
As it turned out, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish citizen, had attempted to assassinate John Paul II, firing four bullets at the Roman Pontiff. Fr. Rachly, who had stood behind David at St. Peters’ Square, had seen Agca raise his gun as he attacked the Holy Father.
The scene after the shooting was chaotic, as the Popemobile sped off, DePerro remembered. “We didn’t know what was happening.” After the Pope left, the witnesses were kept in the square “for hours and hours and hours- they would not let us leave” as Swiss Guards confiscated cameras and film to search for evidence and to treat bystanders who were injured in the shooting.
The four bullets Agca fired hit John Paul II and left him seriously injured, passing through the Pope’s abdomen, arms, and narrowly missing his heart. Two of the bullets that passed through the Pope hit bystanders, one of whom was a member of DePerro’s group from Germany. The woman, who had to stay in Rome for treatment, had been struck in the elbow while resting her arms on the shoulders of one of the religious sisters traveling with the Army group. The woman’s elbow was only inches from the sister’s head.
“When John Paul II said ‘the gunman fired the gun, but Mary guided the bullet,'” DePerro started, “there was more than one bullet that she guided that day.”
“We were very, very blessed. We were spared the worst.”
Shock and Healing
Following the attack, DePerro and the other witnesses of the assassination attempt were in shock. However, as a child, David DePerro did not know what shock was, much less how to respond to it. “I didn’t know what that was called. When you’re a kid, you feel a lot of things or you feel nothing.”
DePerro said that while what he experienced was troubling it did not make him sad – even though he felt it should. “There was just an emptiness and a confusion,” he recalled. This emptiness contrasted, however with others’ responses of sadness and tears, making David feel “guilty because I thought I should be crying.”
“I started crying crocodile tears. I started crying because I was supposed to be crying.”
He added that in the days following the assassination attempt, the group continued its tour of Italy, traveling to Assisi and holding Masses to pray for the Pope and their own group member injured in the attack. “I have no recollection of that service,” DePerro said, adding later that he has little recollection of any details of the trip after the assassination attempt. Instead, he said, DePerro turns to memories from his parents and others on the trip to fill in the gaps of what happened.
DePerro remained silent on his experiences as he reflected on them for years, until the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. Since then DePerro has taken to speaking to children and young adults, as well as to news outlets about his experiences during and after the shooting and to offer advice and the “example of St. John Paul II as a saint to whom they can turn.”
One of the most important points for children and youth who are witnesses of shootings to understand, DePerro said, is that they should be free to talk about and to process their feelings on what happened, no matter what they are. Children who are witnesses of violence should find a trusted adult to talk about what they feel – sadness, anger, nothingness, even gratefulness – without fear of how others will judge those feelings. “It might take a long time to process those feelings. To feel those feelings,” DePerro advised, stressing that as children try to work through what they witnessed “there should be no guilt that it takes a long time to feel those feelings.”
He also stressed the importance of preserving memories and “meaningful artifacts” from important events, even if that event is traumatic. “It’s important to capture your memories,” DePerro said, explaining that he advises children to write down what they saw as soon as they are able. DePerro also pointed to the importance of physical remainders of the event. He lamented that his family had lost the blue hat he had been wearing to the Papal Audience, a hat that helped neighbors and family pick out David from other children in pictures published in German magazines and other news sources covering the Pope’s shooting.
Most of all, he underlined that each child’s experience is unique – even if they experience the same event. “No one else can understand what you’ve been through,” he said. “The reason why I know I don’t understand it is because I’ve been through it myself.”
St. John Paul II and Forgiveness
While each experience is unique, David DePerro said that Saint John Paul II can be a resource and example for those who experience violence. “You can turn to John Paul II as a firm, reliable friend to deal with your spiritual needs, your feelings, regarding what happened, because he certainly does understand.”
The most important aid the Pope can help provide is as an example of forgiveness for those who have harmed others, DePerro said he tells children. After the shooting, John Paul II told the faithful that he had forgiven Agca and asked for prayers for the man. Two years later, the Pope and Agca met for a private visit in the prison where Agca was serving his sentence, and the Pope then met both Agca’s mother and brother in the years following the visit. The Agca family and John Paul II remained in contact until the Pope’s death. Aga was released from Italian prison at the Popeďż˝ s request in 2000, and from prison in Turkey for a separate crime in 2006.
While the Pope’s forgiveness is beautiful, it’s also a challenge, DePerro continued. “I have been the victim of violence myself. It was really hard to forgive that person. It was really hard to feel safe again in my own neighborhood, where I was attacked.” However, the example and experience of John Paul II was a call to not be afraid or hardened. “I call John Paul II someone we can turn to in our prayers for ourselves but also for the other person.”
Because of the difficulty of forgiveness, St. John Paul II’s actions after the assassination attempt should not be seen as merely tenderhearted or kind, but a duty and a part of healing, DePerro counseled. “To forgive is not a sentimental proposition,” he said. “It is a demand that our Lord places upon us but it’s a demand for our benefit.”