John Paul II, A Life in Images

Memories of Arturo Mari, Papal Photographer for 27 Years

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ROME, APRIL 30, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Although Arturo Mari was convinced years ago that John Paul II is saint, he believes the only thing the Pontiff would have to say about his beatification ceremony Sunday is: “Mmmmm, I don’t deserve it.”

Mari was the Pope’s photographer for 27 years, who accompanied his day after day in the Vatican and more than five times around the world. He spoke this week on his memories of the Pontiff at the University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Mari said that from the first moment he understood that John Paul II “was a living saint,” and that he considered his work as the Pope’s photographer as a way “for the world to see things it had never seen before.”

The photographer said that his favorite photo of the Holy Father is the one taken “in his private chapel on a Good Friday, when he was holding the cross in his hand. As a camera went by he leaned the cross on his brow and heart with such force that the nails of his hands look red.”

“Mystery of the cross,” Mari added, “his great suffering.”

He noted that “being close to John Paul II, I have seen many encyclicals. But the last one — which he didn’t write — was that of his suffering.”

Birthday encounter

Among the many anecdotes he shared at the Roman university, he recalled an encounter between John Paul II and a 10-year-old Roman boy: “On May 18, 1980, his birthday, during a pastoral visit to the Roman parish of Christ the King, a 10-year-old boy, bypassing his escort, approached John Paul II and said: ‘Hello, Pope, how are you?’ The boy confided: ‘I escaped from home, yes, I escaped, because it’s your birthday and I wanted to congratulate you.’

“The Pope was somewhat worried and the boy calmed him: ‘You know how women are; my mother was in front of the mirror for hours and it was getting late.’ The boy concluded: ‘I’m poor but I have brought you a gift,’ and he gave him a piece of candy.”

John Paul II answered: “Mmmmm, I don’t deserve it.”

The photographer recalled that one of the most oft repeated phrases of the Pontiff was just that: “Mmmmm, I don’t deserve it.”

“These days I am thinking of him,” Mari added, “who from heaven will see the beatification ceremony and will say: ‘Mmmmm, I don’t deserve it!'”

Guerilla attack

The photographer also recounted John Paul II’s little known encounter with the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla organization in 1985 upon arriving at the airport in Iquitos, Peru.

Mari said that the airport was surrounded by barbed wire, sand bags, machine guns and all kind of weapons. The Pontiff’s entourage wanted to take John Paul II hastily to the VIP lounge. They explained to him that on one side were the guerrillas of the Shining Path, and on the other side the Peruvian army.

John Paul II calmly surveyed the scene, said Mari, and then asked for a small table, which he placed next to the fence.

“He climbed on top of it, and with a megaphone attacked the Shining Path, accusing them of being criminals,” the papal photographer stated.

“I’m here. Lets talk. I am willing to talk,” the Holy Father said.

“There were movements, but no one understood what was going on,” Mari said. “Two days later meetings were held. This gives an idea who John Paul II was.”

War crimes

Then Mari recalled the Pope’s trip to Sudan in 1993, and in particular his meeting with the dictator President Omar Al Bashir.

The photographer said that John Paul II confronted the leader in a loud voice: “President, what are you doing as Chief of State; you are arming the hands of criminals, inciting to revenge between rich and poor, between Muslims.”

The president answered: “Distinguished sir, you are misinformed.”

And the Pope replied: “It’s not necessary to be very informed to know how much you are killing.”

John Paul II added: “Be ashamed of yourself, one day you will have to render an account to God.”

Mari added that today Al Bashir is considered a war criminal.

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