The day 'a living saint' kissed 800 lepers one by one
IT was May 4, 1984 and Pope John Paul II was visiting Sorok Island off South Korea, a leper colony where several hundred people with the disfiguring disease were receiving care.
Arturo Mari was there, as he was on all the Pontiff's trips, a silent witness to almost every papal audience, Mass, vacation and dinner party, public or private.
As the Pope's personal photographer, Mari had nearly unrestricted access to John Paul's 27-year papacy, and his verdict as the Pontiff's beatification approaches is unwavering: he was a living saint.
The protocol that day in 1984 called for John Paul to enter the Sarok pavilion, where the patients were gathered, give a brief speech on the meaning of suffering, then leave. But after surveying the scene, John Paul brushed aside a cardinal who tried to speed him along, and set to work.
"He touched them with his hands, caressed them, kissed each one," Mari said. "Eight hundred lepers, one by one. One by one! For me he was a man of God," the 71-year-old photographer said.
"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."
Tomorrow, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify John Paul in St Peter's Square, bestowing the Catholic Church's confirmation on what Mari and millions of the faithful believed long ago: that Karol Wojtyla lived a saintly life and deserves one of the church's greatest honours.
Beatification is the last major hurdle before being declared a saint, and John Paul is reaching the milestone in record time, a little over six years after his April 2, 2005 death. Benedict put him on the fast track for possible sainthood by waiving the typical five-year waiting period before beatification causes can begin.
The speed with which he is being beatified has drawn criticism that the Vatican is rushing to judgment, given that the clerical abuse scandal occurred on his watch and that history has yet to render its final verdict on the Polish-born pope.
John Paul's defenders say that with tomorrow's ceremony, the church hierarchy is merely catching up to what the faithful demanded at his funeral six years ago, when chants of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately" erupted in St Peter's Square.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Vatican's saint-making office, has said no shortcuts were taken in John Paul's case, although he has acknowledged that, in addition to the initial waiver granted by Benedict, John Paul's paperwork skipped ahead of the dozens of causes that typically await review.
In the run-up to the beatification, John Paul nostalgia has been running high in Rome. His cardinals have been highlighting his encyclicals, decrees and documents which helped shape Catholic teaching on everything from human rights to relations with other Christians and the sanctity of life.
His biographers and spokesmen have been touting his role in bringing down communism, forging relations with Jews and turning the papacy into a modern media sensation.
Many point to the 129 countries he visited that made him the most-travelled pope ever, clocking 720,000 miles, or 29 times around the globe.
Mari was there with him through it all, a stocky, broad-shouldered Roman in a dark suit and crisp white shirt, often the only layman in a sea of clergy. He would discreetly snap the pictures that were then handed out as Vatican pool photos to the world's media.
He started photographing popes when he was 16 and Pope Pius XII reigned. He was brought into that work in 1956 by his father, who worked in administration at St Peter's Basilica. He covered each of the five papacies that followed until his retirement in 2008, ending his career with Pope Benedict.
Many of Mari's best-known images were taken while John Paul was on holiday: a pope sunning himself in the mountains of Val D'Aosta, or sitting in the gardens at the summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo. But there were also those that evoke darker days: a picture of the Pope lying in a hospital bed after a 1981 assassination attempt; another showing him meeting and forgiving the Turkish man who shot him.
Mari noted one memorable trip to Sudan in 1993, when John Paul publicly rebuked President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for failing to protect minority Christians. During their private audience, Mari recalled, a visibly angered John Paul made it personal: He raised his hand to al-Bashir and called him a "criminal" who would ultimately be judged by God.
"You translate what I say literally!" John Paul instructed the translator in the room, Mari said.
For Mari, the papacy revolved around these captured moments in history. But he has his own personal recollections too. For all the trips and audiences with heads of state, celebrities and religious leaders, Mari's favourite photos are fromprivate moments he spent with the John Paul.
The last such moment, he said, was on April 2, 2005. Mari said he visited John Paul in his apartment eight hours before he died, summoned by the Pope's longtime secretary to say goodbye.
The Pope, he said, 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."