“For me he was a man of God,” Mari tells Associated Press April 28 in an interview conducted in his apartment just yards from the Vatican. “I can guarantee you he was a living saint, because everything I could see with my eyes, hear with my ears, you cannot believe that this man could do so much.”
Many of the images that have come to define the public image of Pope John Paul’s papacy were captured by Mari; the Pope sunning himself in the mountains of Val D’Aosta, lying in a hospital bed after a 1981 assassination attempt and then meeting and forgiving the Turkish man who shot him.
For Mari there are some particular moments that typified John Paul the saint. One such occasion came in 1984 when the Pope was visiting a leprosy hospital on Sorok Island, South Korea. In a break with the official protocol, “he touched them with his hands, caressed them, kissed each one,” says Mari, “Eight hundred lepers, one by one. One by one!”
Now retired, 71-year-old Mari’s home contains many photographic memories of his time spent with the Pope. He’s particularly moved by one captured in 2005. It shows John Paul sitting in his private chapel, too sick to attend the traditional Good Friday procession at the Colosseum in person, holding a crucifix as he watched the proceedings on television,
“Look at his hands, the strength of his hands, how he grips the cross!” Mari says, “Look, they’re red! He’s working really hard. You can see his great suffering, it’s like all his life was on that cross.”
Their final meeting came on April 2, 2005, when Mari visited John Paul in his apartment just hours before he died. The Pope, says Mari, was lying on his left side on his bed, an oxygen mask resting on the pillow, “He turned and gave me a smile, and his eyes were enormous. Beautiful! It had been years since I’d seen them like that. He turned, I fell to my knees because the moment, it was stronger than me. He took my hand, he caressed my hand. After a bit he said ‘Arturo, grazie, grazie’ and turned away.”