The Real Paul VI (Part III): The Assassination Attempt

Well, it looks like I won’t have much more time for this series before Pope Paul’s beatification on Sunday. But after this story, which I especially wanted to do, I hope to do a news roundup as well.

The Vatican has announced that the relic that will be carried at Paul VI’s beatification Mass on Sunday will be an undershirt torn with a knife slash and stained with his blood from an assassination attempt in Manila in 1970. This is a story many people won’t know, or at least won’t know well. Even if they recall the attempt, they might not know Pope Paul was actually wounded. In fact, no one but Paul, his secretaries and the sisters who cared for him knew until after his death. That’s the way the Pope wanted it.

Here are the details that have been most published. At the beginning of the Pope’s visit to the Philippines, at the Manila airport, just after he had descended from the plane and pressed by crowds as usual, was greeting a line of dignitaries and prelates, a man in a priest’s cassock approached him — and then lunged with a dagger at his chest.

Pope-Paul-VI-ManilaThe man was immediately grabbed by Msgr. Macchi, the Pope’s secretary and his other bodyguards, and subdued. Macchi later recalled that the Pope made a sign of reproof to him for roughing up the attacker, and that he was smiling serenely. (La Stampa, September 24, 1979). At the time, almost no one suspected the Pope had been hurt, even though Stephen Cardinal Kim, who the Pope had been greeting at the moment of the attack, had blood on the sleeve of his cassock, and he also noticed some drops of blood on the lower part of the sleeve of the Pope’s white cassock (among other sources, La Stampa, May 14, 1981).

There is certainly more to the story, but even a search of the internet doesn’t yield many details. I do remember the long account by Msgr. Macchi that I read some years ago, but can no longer find it, either in English or Italian. But here is what I remember of what it said:

Pope Paul went through the entire welcoming ceremony without giving any sign of agitation. But later, when they had gone to the residence where they were to spend the night, Paul asked Msgr. Macchi to help him, and it was then that the Pope noticed the Pope’s white cassock was stained with blood (he had been wearing the traditional long red cape, which covered him and helped make the blood unnoticeable). Macchi helped him dress the knife gash on the side of his chest, and then Paul put on clean clothes. He asked Macchi to keep it a secret. And this request might be explained by his words when he returned to thoughts of the attacker, a mentally unstable artist named Benjamin Mendoza. “Poor fellow,” he said “things might go harder for him if they knew. . . ” Pope Paul wanted to keep the wound a secret for his attacker’s sake.

Macchi did indeed keep everything a secret until after the Pope’s death.

There are a few further details. Dr. Timothy O’Donnell on the EWTN program “The Glory of the Papacy” first broadcast back in 2010, tells a story, which was related to him and his wife by the Pope’s other secretary, Msgr. John Magee, over lunch. Magee only joined the papal household in 1974, four years after the attack, but he learned everything directly from the Pope. This is what he said:

Once, when they were walking in the Vatican’s rooftop gardens, Pope Paul asked Magee if he had a devotion to Mary.

“Yes, I do,” Magee replied.

“Do you wear a Miraculous Medal?” the Pope asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“Is it a big one?”

This, of course, puzzled Fr. Magee. He showed the Pope his medal, which was only fair-sized.

“I owe a great deal to the Blessed Mother,” the Pope said. He then explained that wearing the Miraculous Medal had saved his life during the assassination attempt, because the knife first struck the medal instead of his chest, and the blow was deflected to the side.

Msgr. Magee later helped to wash Pope Paul’s body in preparation for his lying-in-state, and he said that he saw a red scar on his side from the knife. He also saw the large Miraculous Medal Paul wore over his heart — and it was dented by the knife right under Our Lady’s feet.

Just as with John Paul II, the Virgin Mary had deflected the fatal blow from Pope Paul’s heart.*

These details truly tell us a great deal about Pope Paul. He kept much of his suffering hidden. Many who knew him recall his compassion for the suffering. Cardinal Rigali, who wrote the preface for my book of John Paul I’s writings, A Passionate Adventure, recalls in particular, the Pope’s closeness in suffering to his brother Paul, who had cancer. Rigali was working in the Vatican at the time, and recalls the Pope frequently asking after his brother and saying “How can I help?”  Like John Paul II, he clearly forgave his attacker. And like all Popes, he was very devoted to Mary – who looks out for these particular sons of hers very well.

Perhaps commentators will have researched this story and will let us know more Sunday.

*I have read some other stories suggesting that the leather neck brace the Pope wore also helped in deflecting the blow. I don’t know the exact source of this assertion, though it seems plausible as well.

While awaiting a longer roundup post, here’s a very interesting article on Bl. Paul VI’s legacy.


The Real Paul VI (Part III): The Assassination Attempt — 1 Comment

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