Political and cultural messages
During travels over the next 10 years, John Paul encircled the Soviet Union with his messages of religious freedom, national independence, and human rights. He irritated the Kremlin with declarations that all of Europe should be reunited through its common Christian heritage; he even led an international colloquium in 1981 titled “The Common Christian Roots of the European Nations.”
When not traveling, John Paul supported Poland’s Solidarity movement from the Vatican. As the movement gained strength, he often used his influence as pope to impress upon Poles the need to remain nonviolent and to advance slowly so that the communist regime would have little excuse to impose martial law or dismantle the Solidarity trade union.
This strategy was thrown into sudden crisis when John Paul was shot and nearly killed by a 23-year-old Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, on May 13, 1981. In Poland at this time, Primate Cardinal Wyszynski lay dying of cancer. The sudden prospect of losing both its spiritual leaders unsettled the Solidarity movement. Official investigators determined that Agca’s assassination attempt was almost certainly a conspiracy but have never proved who sponsored it. Throughout the 1980s, however, it was widely believed that the Soviets had been behind the attempt in the hope of demoralizing the Solidarity movement. Regardless of the absence of proof, this popular belief probably helped to diminish the Soviet Union’s moral authority at the time.