Footsteps Away from History
The boy in the blue hat — that's the 9-year old David right there, just moments before the Holy Father was shot.
In the days following the assassination attempt on St. Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981, a German magazine ran a story on the still-recovering Holy Father that included a photo from St. Peter's Square at the moment he fell backwards from bullets piercing his body.
If you squint, you can see a boy pressed against a wooden barrier and wearing a big blue hat. Only moments before, the boy had reached out and shook John Paul's hand as he road in his open-air car greeting the thousands of adoring faithful. It would be the greatest thrill of the boy's young life, only to be followed a moment later by the most chaotic and life-altering.
The boy was David DePerro, then 9-years old, standing beside his mother and two sisters. He still has a copy of that magazine. It's washed-out and brittle now, quite unlike his memories of that day.
"I heard what sounded like firecrackers," says David, a writer and filmmaker living in Virginia. "But they weren't firecrackers. I had no idea what was going on. Everyone was rushing around, crying, praying." A woman named Rose who was a member of his tour group was one of two bystanders wounded in the shooting. She was rushed from the scene.
David has only recently begun to publicly speak about that day.
"I've always wondered why God put me there," he says. "It has taken most of my lifetime to figure out the answer to the question 'Why?'" Here's what he has figured out: Exposure to violence will undoubtedly change a person, but the key is to make sure the change is for the better.
He's not sure where all of this will lead him — maybe a ministry in comforting victims of violence, particularly children, perhaps those victimized by school shootings? He says he would be able to bring to bear his own experiences of what a child might be feeling, but not saying, in the aftermath of a violent event.
Regardless of what the future may hold, David is sure of two things: First, that we must follow the example St. Pope John Paul II set in the aftermath of his shooting, and second, that we must strive for spiritual healing above all else. The two things are indelibly linked.
As for the Pope's example, "The thing that's so important is that he forgave his attacker," David notes. "You see him in the jail cell meeting the shooter, Mehmet Ali Ağca. He chose to forgive."
Without question, the assassination attempt was life-changing for the Holy Father. And, without question, the Holy Father made sure it was life-changing for the better.
Indeed, the Pope's example would become something David would struggle to follow when, in 2003, a stranger wearing a ski mask attacked him from behind as he was getting out of his car. David was able to flee. Like that day in St. Peter's Square, his sense of safety had been punctured. "Like St. John Paul II, I was attacked at my own home," he says. "Anger is natural after trauma. But we are tempted to hold onto it unless we can trust again in God's protection. I had to heal, but I also had to pray for this guy, to forgive him. Forgiveness is necessary to move on and heal."
When it comes to healing and forgiveness, the spiritual blueprint David advocates draws from the Divine Mercy revelations of St. Faustina, which his hero, St. Pope John Paul II, made the central mission of his 26-year pontificate. Through St. Faustina, the Lord calls upon mankind to turn from sin, receive His mercy, and extend that mercy to others, particularly to those who have hurt us.
"Christ tells us through St. Faustina, 'My mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world,'" David says, quoting from St. Faustina's Diary, passage 1485. Therefore, since Christ forgives us, we are obliged to forgive others, David says.
Now, 33 years since that day in St. Peter's Square, David seeks to follow Christ's call made through St. Faustina that we are to tell the whole world about God's mercy (see Diary, 699).
He's certain God will guide him on how exactly he is to play a role in all of this.
"The message of mercy for souls goes together with healing and helping one another in practical ways," he says.
In other words, Divine Mercy is a message that's life-changing — for the better.
David is preparing to produce a film centering on a couple's struggles with the effects of Alzheimer's disease. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/DavidDePerro (@DavidDePerro).