The day Pope John Paul II was shot in St Peter's Square

40 years ago today gun shots in Rome rang out around the world.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the near-fatal assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, an event that stunned the world.

On the fateful day - 13 May 1981 - the Polish pontiff was passing through the thousands of faithful gathered in St Peter's Square, blessing the crowds from his open Popemobile.

Suddenly four shots were fired at close range and John Paul II collapsed into the arms of his aides as the Popemobile was driven away at speed, chased by a team of security officers.

The 60-year-old pontiff, who had been hit in the abdomen, left hand and right arm, was rushed to Rome's Gemelli hospital where he underwent emegency surgery.

Moments before Pope John Paul II was shot in St Peter's Square. Photo Adnkronos.

Panic broke out in St Peter's Square as the faithful cried and prayed that the Holy Father would survive the shooting. Two female bystanders were also injured in the attack.

The assassination attempt was carried out by 23-year-old Turkish citizen, Mehmet Ali Ağca, who was swiftly subdued and arrested.

The afternoon's dramatic events were reported live by a Vatican Radio journalist, Benedetto Nardacci, who said: "For the first time there is talk of terrorism even in the Vatican."

Italian police announced that Ağca, who was on the run from Turkish authorities and Interpol, was a far-right terrorist who had been convicted of the 1979 murder of prominent left-leaning Turkish journalist Abdi İpekçi.

Police seized Ağca's Browning handgun and said he had travelled to Italy using a false passport.

Pope John Paul II recovering in Rome's Gemelli hospital,

Karol Wojtyla, elected pope in 1978, underwent critical surgery, lasting more than four hours, which doctors described later that night as "successful."

No vital organ had been hit and the pontiff would later credit his survival with the Madonna of Fatima - a vision of the Virgin Mary who first appeared to Portuguese children on 13 May in 1917.

Forgiveness

On the Sunday morning after the shooting the pope addressed the faithful in a recorded message from his hospital bed, asking people to pray for the man who pulled the trigger, whom he referred to as "my brother" and offered his "sincere forgiveness."

Within a few weeks John Paul II had recovered fully and on 27 December 1983 he went to visit his attempted assassin in Rome's Rebibbia jail.

In June 2000, after serving almost 20 years of a life sentence in prison in Italy, Ağca was pardoned by then Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi - at the request of JP II - before being deported to Turkey.

Pope JP II meeting Mehmet Ali Ağca in jail in 1983

He was released from an Ankara prison in 2010, five years after the death of Pope John Paul II who would go on to be declared a saint in 2014.

Conspiracy theories

To this day mystery surrounds the motives of Ağca's attempt on the pope's life. Conspiracy theories abound. Some suggest the involvement of the KGB due to Wojtyla's fierce opposition to communism.

Now aged 63 and living in Turkey, Ağca told Italian news agency ANSA today that: "Certainly full light has not been shed on the attack on Pope John Paul II," adding that "many people's memories are fading in a world full of events."

Speaking at today's general audience at the Vatican, Pope Francis recalled the 40th anniversary of the attempted assassination of his predecessor.

“He was certain that he owed his life to Our Lady of Fatima,” Francis said, noting that “that this makes us aware that our lives and the history of the world are in God’s hands.”

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Address Piazza San Pietro, Città del Vaticano, Vatican City

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The day Pope John Paul II was shot in St Peter's Square

Piazza San Pietro, Città del Vaticano, Vatican City