In 1979 Mehmet Ali Agca, at the time a member of a Turkish ultra-nationalist group known as the Gray Wolves, murdered a journalist who was a proponent of human rights and the separation of church, in this case mosque, and state. In August of the following year he became traveling all over the Mediterranean and eventually wound up in Rome. There with trio of fellow terrorists he plotted the death of Pope John Paul II.
On May 13, 1981 he and his accomplices sat in St. Peter's Square and waited. Although someone else was to be the primary shooter, Agca took an opportunity and opened fire on the Pope as he passed. He was wrestled to the ground by spectators and the Papal Chief of Security. Four shots hit the Pope, two lodged in his lower intestine, one in the left hand, and one in his arm. Two bystanders were also hit. His would be partner panicked, did not set of the bomb they had built and did not fire, and fled the scene.
The Pope survived, and Agca received a life sentence in Italy. John Paul II came to visit him. The Pope would later speak privately at the prison, openly state that he had forgiven Agca whom he called a brother, and would later meet with his mother and brother. After almost 20 years, Agca was formally pardoned by the President of Italy and deported to Turkey. There he was incarcerated for the murder of the journalist. He escaped, fled to Bulgaria, was given the death sentence in absentia, was returned to Turkey under a conditional amnesty, was tried for a series of three robberies and assaults he had committed while part of the Gray Wolves, these were dismissed based on statue of limitations, but he was given a 10 year sentence for the murder (based on a Turkish law regarding jail time served in a foreign country), that was over turned, and in 2007 he claimed he had converted to Christianity. He later applied for Polish citizenship so that he could share that with the man he had tried to kill.
He also claimed he was the Messiah.
He addressed reporters in English upon his release. According the the Guardian: "I will meet you in the next three days," Agca said. "In the name of God Almighty, I proclaim the end of the world in this century. All the world will be destroyed, every human being will die. I am not God, I am not son of God, I am Christ eternal."
He had made similar statements while in prison over the last several months.
Which leads us to the story today. He went to Austria and traveled overland to Italy. They checked my passport and questioned me when I took a train from Switzerland to Rome, you would think that someone would do the same for a man who shot the Pope. Although banned from Italian soil (and Austrian for that matter), he neveretheless went to St. Peter's and laid flowers on the grave of John Paul II.
To what end? Maybe a legitimate act of contrition. Maybe an act of self aggrandizement from a man who has periodically done things to stay in the media spotlight. Maybe he does not even know himself. The Italian authorities were right to expel him, and he should not have been allowed in the country in the first place - his ban was to be lifted in 2016 anyway.
However, the real issue is how do we react to this man? He seems to be mentally disturbed, he was formally diagnosed with "antisocial personality disorder" (whatever that maybe) by Turkish authorities. He was certainly at times a murderer, assassin, thief, and terrorist. His claims make him a heretic and blasphemer, if you want to be technical about it.
None of that matters. None of it.
John Paul II forgave him because he knew something simple. Forgiveness is more about the one who forgives than the one who needs forgiving.
In the last year we have seen a lot of violence and hate in the US, and around the world. Some based on simple mistakes, some of it due to systemic problems with our society. Certainly real issues should be addressed and dealt with to the best of our ability.
That does not change the fact that we have to start in one very difficult yet very simple place.