A testimony of a photographer who has documented the pontificate of John Paul II
Fr. Inf. Ireneusz Skubiś talks with the Pope’s photographer – Arturo Mari
FR. INF. IRENEUSZ SKUBIŚ: You have been a photographer for six popes and a photographer of John Paul II for many years as well as a witness of his holy life. Are you missing this Pope who was your friend?
ARTURO MARI: - Yes, indeed. I can think I was a witness of John Paul’s II life. I was very close to this Pope for 27 years. Therefore I am sure that he is in Heaven because his life was holy. No, I am not missing the Holy Father because he has not left us. I always feel him behind my back and hear his voice: ‘Arturo, Arturo…... It is like the Holy Father Benedict XVI says: he is looking through the window of our Heavenly Father and is observing everything what we do and he is always at our disposal. This is the way in which I simply feel John Paul II in my heart.
Today we are paying a tribute to the relics of John Paul II, the drops of his blood. You are such relics for the whole world as well...
I will always say: Lord, I am not worthy....I have always wanted to do my work well in order to give the world a testimony about him. I also wanted to testify about the great work of this great man, show the world his modesty and love, his prayer and faithfulness to God and the Church as well as Mary to whom he devoted himself completely. He connected his whole life with the call ‘Totus Tuus’ and Our Lady always guarded and protected him. It is proved not only by Mary’s protection during the assassination on Saint Peter’s Square on 13 May 1981 what we could see. Our Lady of Fatima was also present in another very difficult moment for the Holy Father. Now we can say about another assassination against his life in Fatima when a person disguised as a priest was trying to kill the Pope. He was protected by Mary.
How did you experience the day of 13 May 1981?
I must say that I always treated John Paul II as my father and he also treated me as his son – only the father talks to his son and affects him in this way. That day I was on Saint Peter’s Square. At 5.25 pm I was standing about 1 meter from the Holy Father. I heard two shots and saw John Paul II fall down near me. What did I feel at that moment? For me the whole world fell down. My father is not alive... There are some moments, seconds when this question is asked: Why? Why does somebody do something like this to such a person...? Another question which people ask me is: how can you take photos in such moments? I do not know. Although, as a professional I know that there is something like documentation. Maybe it was a reflex and a kind of habit. But I also think that my hand was directed by Our Lady because in such a moment I simply do not know if I would be able to do this all by myself. Then there were moments of deep sorrow, a quick transport to Gemelli Clinic, and an operation at night; there were difficult moments when fright and fear accompanied me. In the late morning the Holy Father was transported from an operating theatre. I saw crowds of the faithful who were praying outside the hospital, I also saw doctors with downcast heads when they were asked about the health and life of the Pope. These were hours of deep sorrow until we heard that the Holy Father was alive and we understood that Our Lady had protected him. And it was also the most beautiful moment in my life.
Then my great joy was to take photos of the Holy Father in a hospital bed and confirm the fact that he was alive. I was glad that I could document it.
Were you with the Holy Father when he visited Alego Agca in a prison?
Yes I was. At the sight of the criminal everything in me shook with anger and outrage for what he had done to the Holy Father. However, as a believer and respecting the attitude of the Holy Father I had to compose myself. It was a very emotional moment, the moment of forgiveness. Probably the Holy Father heard the confession of the man in a sense. But what they were saying I do not know. I could only give the world the photos with a calm face of John Paul II during his meeting with Alim Agca. I saw that Agca’s face was completely different than before. I understood that it was an ordinary criminal, mentally unbalanced.
How do you remember Polish meetings with the Holy Father? Which one has stuck in your memory the most?
A very emotional meeting of the Pope in his homeland to me was his visit in Oświęcim. We could see there love of the man kneeling in a place of death of thousands innocent people, near a wall of death, in a cell of Father Kolbe – I saw the completely different Holy Father there. It was enough to see his prayer in order to know that it was a saint on Earth. He spoke a great silence and also a great strength of his faith. Looking at many signs in Oświęcim, John Paul II was the most beautiful sign for me. A very significant moment was John Paul’s II visit to Wadowice when the Holy Father was standing next to a baptismal font in his church, and also in his house when he visited the places of his youth and recalled joyfully how he had been a student and walked for cream cakes. He was telling about his youth in his specific way.
It was also beautiful in Cracow. I will recall Cracow willingly especially when the Holy Father was coming to a window in the Bishop Palace and was talking to the youth: ‘Go home now because it is late, we will meet tomorrow...’ Yes, these are the situations which I have probably remembered the most. People cannot forget his teaching. You must remember what he did for his Polish land, Polish people. As Pope he never forgot his homeland, his origin or his nation. Thanks to his difficult national experiences he also understood others – for example being in Latin America, Mexico when he spoke about the protection of human rights, freedom and peace. I also remember moments when I talked to cardinal Wojtyła during a meeting of the Vatican Council II, and then I could see how the Polish reality looks like. Today we are in 2011 and thanks to John Paul II we can say: peace, freedom. You know what it means. In 1979 I saw something different in Poland, and today I normally walk along the street, I see attractive shops, similar to those in Rome. I also remember a famous ‘Polonez’ car whereas now I travel by BMW, Mercedes or Ferrari here... It is also an opportunity to think about this Saint Man and not to forget him.
- The history of John Paul’s II pontificate is also an unusual chapter of the life history of Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz. You knew him as a very young priest, and chaplain of John Paul II...
Yes, we met 27 years ago. You would have to see how much devotion and sacrifice he gave in his serving to the Holy Father throughout his pontificate. I had not known such a man who was fulfilling his mission with such faithfulness. I am talking about the mission because the work done by Fr. Stanisław was not an ordinary work. He was doing it like the son, as best as he could. If we know the general day schedule of the Holy Father, then we know that he was in the chapel at 6.30, and then there were the Holy Mass, guests, audience. We must remember that the Holy Father never wanted to lose any single minute. Therefore, at breakfast, lunch or supper he had guests – presidents, representatives of countries, ambassadors, chairmen of the Vatican Dycasteries etc. He used to say that there was no time to waste time. He said these words also in the last week of his life when he was going to Gemelli clinic. When doctors did not want to let him go back home he said: ‘That’s enough! I am going back home because I do not have time to waste’. I am talking here also about the hour before his death.
So throughout 27 years of the Holy Father’s pontificate the day of his personal secretary finished in the very late evening. When John Paul II was finishing his day in the chapel with a prayer, this not very tall humble priest in ordinary clothes was behind him.
Fr. Stanisław had already been present in the chapel before the Holy Father entered it and he was also there after the Pope finished his day – he was still working. In the early morning he prepared the whole working day of the Holy Father, he prepared general audiences, controlled all the audiences with the Heads of countries, ambassadors – he had to organize everything. He also prepared foreign trips of John Paul II and his trips in the country. The telephone of Fr. Stanislaw rang 24 hours a day. I am a witness of the fact that Fr. Dziwisz never resigned from answering the phone, if only he was able to talk, ask or help. It was work about which we know very little, it was somehow in the hiding, in the privacy of the papal house. Thank you that I could tell you about it because this is a thing which I have been carrying in my heart for years. I thank Fr. Stanisław for this all he has done for the Holy Father.
I must also mention five sisters – five angels who were helping the Holy Father. They worked from the early morning till the late night, always with a Rosary in their hands, with a prayer. I never saw them upset or nervous. They always had a smile on their faces and I cannot understand how it was possible; Real angels. In the vicinity of John Paul II there was also Fr. Mieczysław Mokrzycki, archbishop of Lvov today – ‘the little Miecio’ as he was called by the Holy Father. He also did a great work....