On May 13, 1981, St. John Paul II greeted nearly 15,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square during his weekly audience. After circling the square, the Holy Father headed toward his pontifical chair in an open popemobile. That’s when an assailant fired multiple gunshots at the pope.
Then Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant was present that day as part of an international conference on vocations. He later recalled the crowd’s reaction — saying pilgrims dropped to their knees in prayer, and “many of the prayers were addressed to the Blessed Virgin.” It was the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, marking 64 years since the first apparition of Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal.
Later that day, Dechant, along with Enrico Galeazzi (the Order’s representative in Rome) and Father John V. McGuire (chairman of the Knights of Columbus Vocations Committee) met with Archbishop Andrzej M. Deskur, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and prayed with him in his private chapel for the pope’s recovery.
“It was a tragic moment, a tragic hour, a tragic day,” Dechant said in the days that followed. “But the people here are optimistic that he will recover from this attack.”
Pope John Paul II did recover, and he learned the identity of his would-be assassin: a man by the name of Mehmet Ali Ağca, who had escaped from a Turkish prison. After his arrest, Ağca initially claimed that he acted alone, but he later testified that the assassination attempt was part of a conspiracy. Whatever Ağca’s motivations, the Holy Father forgave his attacker and later met with him at the Rebibbia Prison in Rome.
At the 99th Supreme Convention in August 1981, just months after the attack, the Knights of Columbus established the Vicarius Christi Fund to reaffirm its “respect for and defense of the priesthood, symbolized by our deep love and affection for our Holy Father.” It was the largest charitable trust set up by the Order at the time, with a $10 million corpus.
“That the Vicar of Christ, a man of love and peace, could be the target of anyone’s hatred and violence, was and is beyond belief,” Dechant said during his annual report. “Had the Holy Father succumbed to his wounds, the Church would have gone on, down to the end of time as Jesus promised. But we all would have lost a special person in our lives, a charismatic pope whose pastoral journeys have brought the warmth of his personal touch into so many lives.”
In reference to the establishment of the Vicarius Christi Fund, he added, “Our next centennial will be celebrated in 2082. None of us here shall be around to see it. Let us resolve now that those who will come after us, the Knights of the 21st century, will be the beneficiaries of the fruits of our present far-sighted decision.”
Through the Vicarius Christi Fund, the Knights of Columbus has financially supported the charitable projects not only of Pope John Paul II, but also Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
In addition to establishing the fund, the Order supported John Paul II throughout his papacy in various ways. In 1985, the Knights provided funding for the Vatican Television Center’s mobile television production studio, which enabled the center to document the Holy Father’s words and activities for use by the world press and to produce other programs on the pope’s journeys, activities and speeches.
The Order was a major contributor to renovations and restorations at St. Peter’s Basilica during John Paul II’s pontificate. Notable projects supported by the Order included the restoration of the basilica’s façade in 1985, and, as a gift to the pope and to the universal Church for the Jubilee Year 2000, the restoration of the 17th-century Maderno Atrium and the Holy Door.
Since St. John Paul II’s death in April 2005, the Knights of Columbus has continued to promote his legacy, most notably through the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Announcing the initiative in 2011, then Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said, “It will be a place where pilgrims from throughout North America will encounter the mission and legacy of one of history’s greatest popes.”
Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly, then the Order’s vice president of public policy, was appointed the shrine’s first executive director. The building was officially designated as a national shrine by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2014, on the occasion of St. John Paul II’s canonization. A Gift of Love: The Life of Saint John Paul II, a permanent exhibit that opened that year, explores the life and teachings of the late pontiff. The shrine’s worship spaces, the Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man) Church and the Luminous Mysteries Chapel, were completed in 2016.
The Order has also produced several films about the Polish pontiff and his legacy, including John Paul II in America: Uniting a Continent, and Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism.
The relationship between the Knights of Columbus and St. John Paul II is further explored in the book The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History. Order it on amazon.
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