( January 13, 1984) Pope John Paul went to the maximum security prison at Rebibbia in Rome Dec. 27. There he met Valerio Malucci of the Red Brigade, the man who supplied the gun that killed Aldo Moro, the Christian Democratic leader in 1978. He met the 200 women prisoners and was surprised to find that they were accompanied by 18 children under the age of 3. He met terrorists, hardened or repentant, famous criminals, minor offenders and people waiting for their trials to begin.
He shook hands with them all. "I have come among you," he explained, "as a sign that you have not been abandoned, that you are not alone in the world, and that somebody thinks about you and loves you."
But the most dramatic meeting in this three-and-a-half-hour visit was with Mehemet Ali Agca. It lasted longer than 20 minutes. Agca knelt and placed his forehead on the back of John Paul's hand -- a Muslim sign of respect. They talked in Italian, helped by a little English.
Their conversation was private and confessional-like. All Pope John would say about it later was that it was "providential." Providence led Agca to make the assassination attempt and to bungle it. That was May 13, 1981. A year later, to the day, John Paul explained that he had been saved by Our Lady of Fatima, whose feast it was. So he went to Fatima to give thanks for his deliverance.
And now he was meeting his would-be assassin in his prison cell. That, too, was in the hands of Providence. It was like a medieval illumination: the servant of God embraces the man who tried to kill him. In the storybooks, Agca would end up by being converted. Though he is said to have "repented," that has not yet formally happened.
But already the emblematic scene teaches that mercy is stronger than justice, and that mercy is at the heart of the Christian gospel. John Paul wrote about this in his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, before he had a chance to apply it in practice.
In that Advent 1980 encyclical, John Paul says mercy causes "uneasiness" in modern people. In a technically well-organized world, there is no room for mercy, which disturbs the order of things