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Camillo Cibin: Bodyguard to six popes who twice intervened in attempts on the life of John Paul II

Camillo Cibin was bodyguard to six popes and head of Vatican security during a long career devoted to the personal protection of the head of the Catholic church, a role which took him to more than a hundred countries. His was a life of almost six decades of commitment and dedication to his post, eternally watching for those who might do harm to successive pontiffs. Twice would-be assassins got through his defences.

At his funeral mass in St Peter's, Cibin was lauded for his success in preserving papal lives. Yet his career included, in May 1981, an incident which came close to being a bodyguard's worst nightmare. This was when a gunman got close enough to Pope John Paul II to shoot him, in St Peter's Square itself. But although hit four times the Pope survived, and insisted Cibin stay in his post, so that both of them continued to work side by side for decades aftewards.

How Cibin looked back on that moment was never revealed, for he was famously discreet. A Catholic publication referred to "his absolutely impenetrable reserve" while a Vatican quip had it that he never responded to a question, not even "What time is it?"

As he rose through the ranks he took charge of the historic Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and by 1972 was head of security. In this capacity he watched over various conclaves which appointed popes. His job placed him in charge of overall papal security and also cast him as the pope's chief bodyguard, forever by his side or jogging alongside his vehicle. Both of these roles became much more challenging during the 27-year-long pontificate of John Paul II.

When John Paul embarked on unprecedented round of international travel Cibin was in charge of ensuring his safety abroad, liaising with foreign governments and their security agencies. As the Pope went globe-trotting Cibin literally went trotting alongside him. Although foreign travel introduced many new risks, it was in St Peter's Square that the Pope had his closest brush with death.

John Paul had taken to going through the square in what was irreverently known as the "popemobile", standing to greet crowds of the faithful. The Pope was on his way to his regular weekly public audience, with some 15,000 people surging around him, when shots rang out. He slumped back, hit by two bullets in the abdomen and suffering other wounds to his arm and a finger. Cries rang out: "Hanno sparato il Papa! Hanno sparato il Papa!" ["They've shot the Pope!"] As the gunman, a young Turkish national, plunged through the crowd Cibin pursued him until the attacker was apprehended by worshippers, who included a nun.

The Pope had paid the price for insisting on being only lightly guarded during public appearances in Italy because he wanted "unhindered access to his flock," according to a Vatican official, who added, "It's impossible to guarantee security when the Pope goes into the piazza to greet people."

The would-be assassin was Mehmet Ali Agca, who would serve a long prison sentence for the attack. The pope made a speedy and full recovery, refusing to attach any blame to Cibin and attributing his survival to the celestial rather than the terrestrial.

"Agca knew how to shoot, and he certainly shot to kill," the Pope later wrote. "Yet it was as if someone was guiding and deflecting that bullet." The Pope believed that he owed his life to Our Lady of Fatima, who is regarded by the Catholic Church as a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. He declared: "In everything that happened to me on that very day I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet."

A year later came a second attempt, this time at a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. Ironically, the Pope was visiting it to give thanks for his deliverance from the earlier attack. On this occasion Cibin and others helped to fend off an unstable priest wielding a knife, earning himself the description of "the Pope's Guardian Angel".

The incident was played down at the time. But years later Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's long-time private secretary, disclosed that the Pope's life had once again been in danger. He said: "I can now reveal that the Holy Father was wounded. When we got back to the room in the sanctuary complex, there was blood." The unhinged priest served several years in prison.

None of this deterred the Pope from travelling widely, though naturally his personal security was stepped up. In all Cibin visited 104 places with John Paul, as well as accompanying the present Pope, Benedict XVI, to Germany and Poland.

The attack in St Peter's Square has continued to attract almost as many theories over the years as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The KGB and the Bulgarian secret service are among those blamed; Agca himself changed his story several times, sometimes claiming intelligence involvement, sometimes claiming he acted alone. The Pope visited him in prison and stayed in contact with him. Agca served 19 years in Italian custody before being returned to Turkey to serve an additional sentence for a previous murder.

In 2005 Cibin escorted John Paul's vehicle as it carried the pontiff on his last journey home to the Vatican from the Gemelli Polyclinic, to which he had been admitted. Shortly afterwards John Paul died in his papal apartment.

Cibin went on to preside over the security arrangements for the conclave at which the present Pope was elected as his successor. He was almost 80 years of age when he retired, to be replaced by his deputy, Demenico Giani.

David McKittrick

Camillo Cibin, Inspector-General of the Corps of Gendarmes of the Vatican City State: born Salgareda, Treviso, Italy 5 June 1926; married (three children); died Rome 25 October 2009.