A Blessed tool
A special guest – the Pope’s photographer has paid a visit to ‘Niedziela’ editorial office recently. Fr. Inf. Ireneusz Skubiś talks to Arturo Mari.
FR. INF. IRENEUSZ SKUBIŚ: - You are a man known very well to us as the one who documented the life of Blessed John Paul II. The life of many people in the world has been marked by photos with the Holy Father of Your authorship. People speak about you as a ‘blessed tool’ in transferring the message to the world by the Pope. Whenever we could be in Vatican, we admired your concentration and quick action. I must say that – although certainly not like you – we also were near John Paul II and in our publications we gave a testimony for that all the time. But, taking advantage of the occasion that you are with us, we request you for some words as a witness of the great Pope.
ARTURO MARI: - Thank you, Reverend Editor, for inviting me and for what you said that ‘Niedziela’ had been so near the Pope. I understand well how difficult it is to conduct a newspaper based on a word of truth. We must still look for good solutions among various options and not lose the sight of what is the most important. Our Holy Father realized the fact as well. I knew that he read ‘Niedziela’ newspaper every week –although I did not have any idea at first what that word meant. You prepare a message of the truth in each edition, also in terms of teaching by John Paul II, and also a message of the social doctrine of the Church. You understand very well what the Holy Father wanted to tell the world and your work was appreciated by Him very much. I was very close and I could observe that. The Holy Father always had much confidence in you. Therefore it is a great honour for me to meet with you here, touching again the whole thinking of the Pope which is actualized here.
Please admit that you are missing John Paul II today...
The Holy Father is not with us physically but nothing has changed from my point of view, I always feel John Paul II in my life, thoughts and behind my backs. I have just attended a Holy Mass in the Chapel of Our Lady in Jasna Góra. have been here with the Holy Father many times. I must say that I entered the Chapel as if I had been with him. And kneeling during the Holy Mass, suddenly I noticed a significant white figure. It was a priest celebrating the Holy Mass but it was a moment of special emotions for me and my heart started beating harder. No, I do not feel without the Holy Father because he is with me all the time. I always feel him behind my back, I hear his voice: - Arturo, Arturo...
Which of the meetings with the Holy Father did you remember most?
It is difficult to say. The most moving moments were His meetings with children. But the meeting, which also impressed me very much, was John Paul’s II visit to an island of lepers. It was during His pastoral visit to South Korea (1984 – note Edit.) Cardinal Kim, the archbishop of Seoul wanted then to confine the visit of the Holy Father, excluding, among the others, that meeting. But John Paul II did not resign from anything. We flew by a helicopter to an island inhabited by only the lepers. After greeting by children the cardinal invited the Pope into a white long building. The visit was scheduled for a few minutes. According to my work I went forward a bit earlier. I entered the building and covered my face with my hands. I kneeled aside and started to pray. I was not able to do my work....
The Holy Father arrived, looked, fell onto his knees and was praying for about 8 minutes. Then he stood up. The protocol of the meeting provided that the Pope would say a few words and give his blessing. But he headed directly towards the lepers. Cardinal Kim was trying to stop him. However, the Holy Father repulsed the cardinal’s hand with a strong gesture, going forward towards the lepers. He met with about 800 lepers, with each of them, touching their faces and kissing them. You understand what it means to be leper: somebody suffering from this illness has not got eyes, nose or face – only deformed mouth is seen. The whole body is destroyed, nearly rotting, crooked hands. I am saying about it because we often see some false descriptions of that situation. I remember it very well also in my heart.
Have you ever been, as the Pope’s photographer, asked to serve at some extraordinary meetings in Vatican? Once it was told about a man brought to an audience to the Holy Father...
It was an event in the first year of John Paul’s II pontificate. I finished my work at 4 pm, and sat at a table – like all people after work. At that moment priest Stanislaw phoned to ask me to come back to the papal apartments. It turned out that a man weighing about 28 kg – wanted to touch the Pope very much and pray with him for a while. His family was very poor and they came from the areas near Brescia. People from that town collected money to help him go to Rome and meet with the Holy Father. That man, unable to move by himself, arrived at the Bronze Gate where he was stopped by a Swiss Guard soldier. He was lucky to have met one of the responsible in the Guard. When the soldier heard what it was about, he immediately phoned priest Stanislaw who told him to bring that man to the papal apartment. John Paul II was just praying in his private chapel. I was there 2 minutes later. I saw found the Holy Father on his knees, keeping his right hand on the man’s shoulder; the man could not hold his head by himself, as he was ill. The Pope was praying for him for about 15 minutes. Then he turned to him, said something into his ear, blessed him, kissed him and hugged him. Then he undid his button in his gown, took off his chain and hung it on the man’s neck. They shook their hands. The man turned round and said to John Paul II: ‘Thank you, Holy Father, for what you have done to me’ – and he added: ‘see you in Heaven’. It was a scene which I remember. That man died after returning to his town.
You worked with John Paul II from the beginning of his pontificate. Could you tell us about moments which made you aware in a special way that you were dealing with an extraordinary man who lived like a saint?
I must specify that I knew the Holy Father from the times of Vatican Council. I met him there because I was a friend of Cardinal Wyszyński. It was him who introduced me to Cardinal Wojtyła. I had served to six popes, starting from Pius XII. After 53years of work I could have said: ‘my work has finished’ and I could have retired. I must thank God that I have not wasted any hour of my work or made any mistake in any photo for 53 years of my work. But it was a gift from God. I was learning to discover John Paul II. I was fascinated with Poland – the Church of silence during communism. Talking to bishop Wojtyła many times, I felt that he was a bishop slightly beyond any norms that he was far ahead of other bishops. All that created an unusual atmosphere together with the history of your country. The Holy Father had to solve many problems in his life and he was also familiar with the issue of suffering. I think that holiness of a man is born in his life experiences. Pope Wojtyła somehow raised his whole experience to dignity. John Paul II was born from this experience. In order to understand it all, we need to look at his speeches addressed to the United Nations Organization and other international institutions (FAO, UNESCO or to all important people of the world in Mexico). That was a social doctrine of the Church but, in fact, of John Paul II.
My relationship with John Paul II was not only a relationship between the Pope and a photographer. I treated the Holy Father as my father and he addressed me as if I was his son. John Paul II took his holiness to a chapel. When the Holy Father’s face was seen during his prayer, everybody somehow felt that holiness which was beyond any norm.
John Paul II the Great changed the world. It was also an argument for the fact that he was a saint man. I like seeing him in two situations: one in Poland when 3 million young people are expecting his white figure – I was one meter behind his back then, I saw what he saw and I felt what he felt....and another situation – when the Holy Father addressed one of he leaders of countries with words: ‘you are a criminal, you kill your children, you stir up a war among brothers! You are not the head of state; you are simply an ordinary criminal’. Now I can say that it concerns the visit in Khartoum. You know the situation in Sudan (North Sudan – Islam, South Sudan – the Catholics). The leader was stirring up a war among people in the country. John Paul II, finishing his speech said to him: ‘Remember, you will be requited from God for this all’. It was not only his speech addressed to people but also to the leader of the country, showing also the Holy Father’s determination. The leader of the country should be beautiful and the nation – happy and not like in that moment. It was 22 years ago. At that time nothing about that criminal was written in newspapers, but everything was written about that crime. Now Sudan got divided, a new country was created – the hope for life. What happens now was born 22 years ago.
I would like to emphasize intelligence, responsibility and power of thinking of John Paul II. I also remember a situation in Peru connected with ‘Shining Path’ – these are other criminals. The Holy Father stepped on the table and in front of hundreds of soldiers of regular army he said: ‘Come closer, come forward, do not hide...’. When everybody saw the Pope with his stretched out arms and was standing behind his back very close, everybody felt the atmosphere. This situation presents the famous words: ‘Do not be afraid!’. Being in those situations, I also felt the value of these words.
The Holy Father was often emotionally moved, and sometimes he was even crying. Did you make a photo of the crying Pope?
I saw the moved Holy Father, probably in Castel Gandolfo. Also on 11 September 2011 – during the attack on the twin towers in New York and during the beginning of the war in Iraq. I was trying to take a photo then but very delicately not to disturb because those were special moments. My person at that moment was too much. I was taking one photo as if I was absent and I did not want to disturb.
What was your last meeting with John Paul II?
It was 8 hours before his death. Priest Stanislaw phoned my office to tell me to go to the papal apartments quickly. I went through Sixtus V Gate and up there with a lift. I and priest Stanislaw embraced each other, understanding the situation. Coming out of the lift, I was going through a corridor where the room of the Holy Father was on the left; there was an office of the Pope and priest Stanislaw opposite the room and a chapel next to it. I used to go that way for 26 years. I went to the room from the right side from my habit but Fr. Stanislaw stopped me and led me to the room on the left. It was a bedroom of the Holy Father, furnished in an extremely modest way what struck me very much. John Paul II turned slightly towards me. Fr. Stanislaw said: - ‘Holy Father, Arturo is here’. It was a moment when I really felt frightened. John Paul II looked at me with his beautiful big blue eyes which I had seen for years. I saw his smiling face and I fell onto my knees. He touched me tenderly, and at a certain moment he shook my hand firmly and said with a quiet voice: ‘Thank you, Arturo...’ and he turned back to the other side. I will not forget that face expression, eyes. He looked like a happy person, ready to leave. It was my most beautiful meeting with John Paul II.
‘Niedziela’ once wrote that your son had become priest....
I think that it is a great contribution of my very religious and intelligent wife and her closeness to Juan Carlos. You must understand it: 27 years near the Pope, 365 days away from home, every Christmas, Easter, etc. I left in the mornings and came back at 22.00, 23.00 in the evenings and I never saw her upset but I was always welcomed with her smile. Thanks to her I could calmly realize my ministry for the Pope. My son asked me many times why the Holy Father was doing so and not otherwise, why he is just the way as he was ...When my son joined a seminary, the Holy Father met him many times. But Benedict XVI ordained him a priest. Now my son works in Ecuador where in the poorest region of Latin America a new mission of Christ’s legionnaires was opened. It takes care of 200 young people who were taken from the streets; my son takes care of 120 poor families who need help. He has been alone for 3 years but we know that John Paul II supports him.
You documented pontificates of six popes, including two blessed popes. We, Poles, know so little about John Paul I who died after 33 days. How did you remember him?
I also met Cardinal Albino Luciano – John Paul I, a patriarch of Venice during the Vatican Council II, as a bishop. He was very good but a bit frightened and quiet, he worked a lot. He suffered from heart illness. He was worried that he would not cope with the task. We cannot say a lot about him as a pope. Surely he was an intelligent man – it can be said on the basis of audiences which he managed to give. I knew his brother very well who was very close to him. When they said goodbye to each other, his brother used to say to John Paul I: ‘Albino, we will meet after my return. I will visit you in Vatican’. And the Pope used to reply: ‘If you find me alive there, we will meet’. The task of being a pope was very difficult to him. Anyway, during his first audience, just after his election, he addressed cardinals (the Vatican Radio spoke about it): ‘Poor Christ sat on this throne. I hope that you will not leave me in this situation and will help me because this task is too difficult to me’. These are famous words, heard by many people.
When he was elected Pope, the secretary of State asked me to take official photos of John Paul I. There was time when we were walking together. These were short but very beautiful moments. Then the Pope headed towards the Vatican Gardens. There is a street of Pius XVII and a tower of St John where cypresses grow. I saw his white figure disappearing among those cypresses. He died a few days later. There is a photo showing him leaving among the cypresses towards the tower of St. John....
Do you write your memories?
No, I don’t but maybe I will do it in the future.