Radical Forgiveness

John Paul II gave us a moment that we need to remember

Pope John Paul II meets with Mehmet Ali Agca in his prison cell (1983)
Pope John Paul II meets with Mehmet Ali Agca in his prison cell (1983)

When Pope John Paul II’s would-be assasin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was released from a Turkish jail last week after serving almost 25 years behind bars — except for the complete transformation of his hair from jet black to grey — the man who emerged looked strikingly similar to the person who inhabits one of the more enduring images that I hold dear of the late pope. In that scene John Paul is huddled in a corner talking quietly at close range with the man who tried to kill him. It was an extraordinary act of forgiveness that continues to be extremely rare — if not unheard of — on the world stage and one I don’t remember nearly enough in my own life.

After Agca shot John Paul II six times at close range while thousands of pilgrims looked on in St. Peter’s Square, people around the world were shocked. “Who would want to kill a Pope?” was the question on many people’s lips. “He should get the chair,” my mother remarked angrily. And we all agreed.

Breaking the endless cycle

It was an understandable reaction. Think about it, how often do any of us forgive or ask forgiveness for the many comparatively small transgressions in our own lives? How often in our history books, filled with accounts of hatred and violence, do we come across unpredictable acts like this that break the endless cycle of vengeance? Months after his recovery, the Pope’s visit to his attacker in prison was a radical step in a different direction. He looked at his would-be killer in the eye, conversed with him, shook his hand, and even prayed for him!

If you look at the video footage of the event, Agca was noticeably uncomfortable at first but, soon he began to relax and even mustered a smile in the Pope’s presence. For me this moment showed the world what it meant to be Catholic. John Paul, as he so often did, set the bar high in providing a good example and he didn’t stop there. Years later John Paul didn’t stand in the way of Agca’s release from jail.

Hard to love

Every time I hold a grudge, I’m reminded of this act. I often allow petty differences to consume my friendships and relationships, leaving them in smoldering ash heaps. Would anyone have blamed the Pope if he simply left Agca to rot in jail and never went to visit him? Sadly, the cycle of hate that Agca started with the firing of his gun is a dynamic we are all too familiar with whether it is in our own personal lives or played out on a more lethal scale by Palestinians and Israelis, Serbs and Croats or Sunni and Shia.

Like the elderly, the unborn and the poor, Mehmet Ali Agca is among those members of our society who we often think are simply too hard to love. Who’s too hard for me to love? When I’m grumpy and depressed do I bother to love my wife or am I simply concerned with my own affairs? Can I love my parents when they place demands on my time and I’d rather be somewhere else? Can I love the poor when they live amongst garbage and are desperate and agressive in seeking a handout from me? How about madmen who fly planes into buildings and take the lives of innocent civilians?

As a follower of Jesus, the Pope gave us a memorable event that mirrored the actions of our savior on the cross. If God could forgive those who pounded the nails into his flesh then no human being is too hard to love. When John Paul II forgave Mehmet Ali Agca he set in motion a mission for all of us to radically rethink what Christian love is all about.