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The men sit face-to-face, their knees touching.

One wears what appears to be a drab blue shirt and jeans. A couple of days' growth of beard frames a downcast face.

The other wears a flowing white robe. His head bowed, he seems to be listening intently.

It is two days after Christmas 1983, and Pope John Paul II has come to the Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome to visit Mehmet Ali Agca.

Two and a half years earlier, Agca had wounded the pontiff gravely in a shooting attack in St. Peter's Square. Images of John Paul talking with his would-be assassin, circulated by the Vatican and transmitted throughout the world, would prove as powerful and enduring as any homily, presenting a living example of the forgiveness and reconciliation the pope would make central to his 26-year pontificate.

"The obvious parallel would be Jesus forgiving people from the cross," says the Rev. James Martin, associate editor of the Catholic magazine America. "Forgiveness is really at the heart of the Christian message. . . . He was giving us, in his own way, a parable for our times."

While showing the world a positive image of Christianity, the meeting helped the Catholic Church to move on from the attack, increase John Paul's stature and add authority to his historic pursuit of forgiveness for the church's sins.

"It showed that he really believed what he was telling us about forgiveness and mercy and the dignity of each person, and extending that caring focus even to the person who tried to take his life," said Stephen Pope, a Boston College theology professor. "He was a great man of symbols, and that was one of the key symbols of his pontificate."

John Paul actually had pardoned Agca long before their meeting. In "Memory and Identity: Conversations Spanning Millenniums," published earlier this year, he writes that he told his personal secretary, "I forgive the assassin," as he was rushed to the hospital that day in May 1981.

Later, he asked the faithful to "pray for my brother, whom I have sincerely forgiven."

Martin says that those comments, disseminated widely, helped the faithful begin to heal.

"It pointed out to people the need to kind of move on from an event that could have become a very embittering point," he said. "Rather than holding onto it, the pope in his person forgave Mehmet Ali Agca and turned it into a real opportunity for grace in people's lives."

At a time when the world was still getting to know the new pope, his example of forgiveness would enhance his moral authority.

"It gives great credibility to his deep-down, persistent opposition to the death penalty, for instance," said Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper. "And when he comes out against war, comes out against violence, he does it with a credibility that he not only talks about forgiving enemies, but knows how to do it."

The experience would add weight to his pleas that the church be forgiven for its transgressions. In March 2000, at an unprecedented Day of Pardon Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, John Paul asked God's forgiveness for the sins of Catholics through the ages, including wrongs inflicted on Jews, women and minorities.

"God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations," he said. "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood."

Later that month, he tucked a manuscript of the prayer between the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Jewish faith's holiest site.

"Part of his mission has been one of reconciliation," said the Rev. Michael Driscoll, an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "Not only did he talk the talk, but he walked the walk."

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