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Arturo Mari, photographer who John Paul II treated like a son


His story is one of strength, dedication and sacrifice. Arturo Mari was only 16 when he began as Vatican photographer on March 9, 1956. He would go on to give 55 years of his life to immortalizing the most important moments of six different popes. 

From John XXIII to Benedict XVI, he froze those moments in time. His most special relationship, though, was with John Paul II, with whom he became friends during the Second Vatican Council. Neither of the two imagined one would end up being pope and the other would be the first to photograph him after the white smoke.

ARTURO MARI
Vatican photographer
“From one minute to the next, we see the white smoke. 'Habemus papam... Karol Wojtyla.' People were asking, 'Is he African?' I screamed, 'It was him! I almost had a heart attack I was so happy. I was outside the Sistine Chapel, and they opened the door. I was going to go in, when I saw him a few feet away. He looked at me, he smiled and then he went... like, 'Look how I'm dressed.' He hugged me, he blessed me and I hurried off to work.”

From then on, Arturo was John Paul II's shadow. He didn't miss a single day of work, despite having five vacation days a year. This allowed both men to get to know each other so well that their relationship became almost father-son. 

ARTURO MARI
Vatican photographer
“For 27 years, from the first to the last day, I was there with him. I can say he treated me like a son, I saw him as a father. He had time to ask me how I was, if everything was going well at home, with my wife... He spoke with my wife three times, and I still don't know what he told her. Whenever I ask her, she says, 'It's not your business!'”

These 27 years by the pope's side were filled with moments he would remember for the rest of his life. Mari assures the most difficult, and beautiful at the same time, was the day they bid farewell. The pope called for him to visit him in his room.

ARTURO MARI
Vatican photographer
“They told him, 'Holy Father, Arturo is here.' He was in his bed and slowly turned over. When I saw him, my heart leapt. He had a smile, eyes I hadn't seen in months. It moved me so much that I knelt before him. He caressed my head and blessed my hands for a few moments. At the end, he told me, 'Arturo, thank you. Thank you.'”

Mari attributes luck to the success of some of his photos, assuring it was being in the right place at the right time. He says there's only one key to so many years of work: humility. It's a lesson he learned from John Paul II. 

ARTURO MARI
Vatican photographer
“As a photographer, the big secret is entering into the charisma with the person you have in front of you. If you don't feel it, you'll never do it well.”

Mari has kept each one of the cameras that have accompanied him throughout life, even one that saved his life during a riot in Bogota. His job allowed him to get to know John Paul II better than anyone.