Thursday, 13 September 2007

Papal Photographer Recalls Half-Century Career

Arturo Mari Shares Memories of John Paul II

ROME, SEPT. 12, 2007 ( Arturo Mari officially handed in a resignation three years ago, but the longtime papal photographer said his "superiors wouldn't let me leave."

The photographer of L'Osservatore Romano, the semiofficial newspaper of the Vatican, retired in May after having served during six pontificates -- a total of 51 years.

Mari recently told ZENIT that he retired because the time had come: "It is fair that others have the same opportunity, the same satisfaction and the same luck that I had."

For the man who admits that he likes being in the background, and that he doesn't like speaking in public, retirement isn't what he thought it would be: "I get no rest, you could say I work more than before, between conferences and awards ceremonies."

Mari was born in the Borgo district of Rome, which borders Vatican City. He was only 16 when he began shooting photographs in the Vatican. "I went in at 11 a.m. on March 9, 1956, and I never left," he said.

Successive Pontiffs kept him on in his position, he added, placing their trust in him and giving him freedom of movement.

"They never told me to put my camera down, not allowing me to take photographs," he said. "If I did, it was of my own initiative, as when John Paul II prayed in his private chapel.

"After shooting the first photo I would leave, hearing him speak with the Lord, so engrossed. Well, that was not my place."

The list

Mari said the first Pope he photographed was Pius XII, the Pontiff of the "sede gestatoria" (portable throne), the man of great and solemn gestures who inspired in the young photographer "the habit of looking for the right expression, the perfect moment to immortalize."

Then there was John XXIII, said Mari, with whom "the Church began to open its doors and the Pope was among the people."

Paul VI, said Mari, was "shy, reserved, the first Pontiff to go abroad."

And then, he said, there was John Paul I, who died after just 33 days of his pontificate.

"I photographed him in the garden while he walked along a path lined with cypress trees. The image of this man walking away with his back turned, looking back in it, it seemed to me to be prophetic," Mari said.

The photographer said that his work schedule increased with John Paul II: "I knew when I would start working each day with him -- at 6:15 a.m., but I never knew when I would be leaving. Sometimes I left at 8 or 10 p.m."

Benedict XVI, said Mari, is "intelligent and good, a man who knew how to lead us with tenderness in a moment of passage that was truly delicate," referring to the time of transition after the death of John Paul II.

John Paul II years

The 26-year relationship with John Paul II gave Mari many memories, above all that of the Holy Father's spirituality.

Mari recalls him as the Polish Pope who was always at prayer; a nice Pope, who had colorful exchanges with Mother Teresa.

"She was so small but what strength! When she went to see the Pope, the sister [was like] a little machine gun: 'Ta-ta-ta' -- she said everything that was on her mind," Mari recalled.

John Paul II drew her to him and embraced her, on his heart, and patted her head to try and calm her down, to quell that agitated emotion that made her endearing. He would tell her, "Slowly, slowly," Mari added.

The dying Pope

In a particular way, Mari recalls those last years of John Paul II's illness: "Being near him, I could see his suffering, but he was never ashamed to be seen. He made us understand what it means to be ill."

Mari had to dry tears before he continued: "And those eyes … six hours before he died, Bishop Dziwisz called me, asking me if I could go quickly to His Holiness' apartment. I really didn't understand."

Mari responded to the invitation of Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the personal secretary of John Paul II.

In silence, the two men exited the elevator. They turned left and then right and down the hallway, "at the end of which Stanislaw took my hand and led me toward the Pope's room."

Mari, now aware of what was happening, said he was "shocked."

The photographer did not want to go inside, but the secretary insisted: "Come, he has asked for you."

Once inside, Archbishop Dziwisz said: "Holy Father, Arturo is here."

At that point John Paul II raised his eyes, meeting those of the photographer, and caressed his hand: "He had an expression I had never seen before. I kneeled down, he blessed me and thanked me."

Mari added: "The only person who ever thanked me for anything, see, was a Pope on a deathbed. Then, the Pope turned, as if ready for another, more wonderful, meeting."