The shooting of Pope John Paul II dominated attention yesterday in dozens of nations where his personal appearances and forthright pronouncements on social and political issues had made him both a popular and a controversial leader.
Within minutes of assassination attempt, television screens throughout Europe and Latin America were focused on Vatican City. In Argentina, West Germany and Uruguay, government officials broke off meetings to send messages to Rome. And in the pope's native Poland, where people gathered to cry and pray in the streets of Warsaw, the PAP news agency said, "the news spread like lightning around the country, causing pain and anger."
That account might well describe reaction reported by news services and Washington Post correspondents throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere, where 90 percent of the world's 581 million Roman Catholics live. Non-Catholics also expressed dismay.
Britian's queen Elizabeth said she was "horrified and schocked to hear of the attack," and her words were echoed by the leaders of dozens of nations. "It's impossible to understand this thing," said Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. "This is an awful thing, disgusting."
The outpouring of emotion was made more vivid in a score of countries by the personal memories millions have of appearances by the pope, whose 100,000 miles of traveling in his 2 1/2-year papacy has surpassed that of any of his predecessors and made him a legend of charm, stamina, and outspokenness. Under John Paul's guidance, the Vatican has attempted to intercede in troubled areas from the tip of South America to Northern Ireland.
There were suggestions mixed with the sympathy that it was John Paul's very activism and openness that made him vulnerable to the first attack on a pope in 11 years. In Canada, Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter said, "the accessiblity of our leaders is a good thing, but there is a price we must pay for it. . . . We wonder what sort of madness is abroad in the world."
Carter, who said he had warned the pope about such an attack, added however, that he believed John Paul would not be changed by his wounds. "I know he will always be accessible. He is not the kind who can shut himself away from people."
The pope's touch has been felt particularly in Central and South America, where the Roman Catholic Church is most populous and perhaps most powerful. Mexico was one of the first countries the pontiff visited in 1979, and last summer he spent 12 days in Brazil.
In these visits, the pope has shown some of his most human moments, telling residents of slums that the Roman Catholic Church, "wants to be the church of the poor," and has enunciated some of his most controversial doctrines, warning activist church leaders to avoid politics and nationalistic movements.
In lower South America, where the Vatican is now arbitrating a border dispute between Chile and Argentina, churches held special masses and priests and nuns gathered to pray for the pope's recovery. Argentine President Roberto Viola immediately suspended a meeting with a Cabinet minister when he heard the news, and a spokesman expressed the government's "shock and consternation."
The spokesman added that the incident would not affect the Vatican's involvement in the Chile-Argentina conflict "because the pope is alive and we are all going to pray that he survives this ghastly attempt on his life."
In Mexico, Washington Post special correspondent Marlise Simons reported that reactions were of immediate panic. Media outlets were swamped with phone calls, and radio and television stations instantly hooked up with Rome and began to provide constant news bulletins. Afternoon papers came out with headlines covering half the front page.
President Lopez Portillo told reporters that "we live in an era in which violence serves not only the absurd but also the mad" and added that society must find a remedy for the "absurd and irrational actions which are pushing us toward an overgrowing, terrible vacuum."
Brazilian children still wear t-shirts commemerating John Paul's visit, and last night hundreds gathered in hot churches in Rio de Janeiro to pray for the pontiff, special correspondent Jim Brooke reported.
"We have all been hit by the shots," Rio's Cardinal Dom Eugenio Salles said. "He [John Paul] told me this could happen, but he chose to be in constant contact with the people."
The news took on a particularly eerie cast in Columbia with the appearance of a long article in a Colombian magazine on the streets yesterday morning predicting an assassination attempt on the pope. Under the headline, "Written in his Palm: The Pope Could be Killed," the article warned the pope and his bodyguards to be careful in large crowds.
For many, the attack on Pope John Paul as he waved to the faithful in St. Peter's Square was an ugly reminder of the increasing terrorist activity and instability in the world.
"This is a world of horrible violence, and if that could happen, anything could happen," Begin told reporters in Jerusalem.
U.N. Secretary Kurt Waldheim said the assassination attempt "dramatically illustrates the need for the world to rise up in indignation and insistence on the end to all such violent acts."
Venezuelan President Luis Herrera decried the "moral disjointedness that plagues our troubled world."
Spanish Premier Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo said, "As president of a government which suffers from repeated terrorist attacks, I can only express my consternation and as a Catholic join with the rest of the religious world to pray for the recovery of his holiness." w
State television in the officially atheistic Soviet Union carried a brief factual account of the assassination attempt that included videotape of the scene in St. Peter's Square moments after the shots were fired. China's Xinhua news agency reported the incident without comment in a two-paragraph dispatch with the headline, "Pope Attacked."