Friday, June 22, 2007

Niente (Foto) di Più

Word's been going around about it for awhile, but it became official at May's end: Arturo Mari, the chief Vatican photographer with all access to the Popes since before the birth of Jesus, has retired.

Officially credentialed as photographer to L'Osservatore Romano, the Holy See's daily paper, the body of Mari's work (which actually spans 51 years; he started snapping Pius XII when he was 16) stands alone in its scope, and its influence.

Arguably, the world has seen the Popes through his eyes more than those of any other -- and it could well be said that if he didn't capture it, it didn't happen: everything from liturgies for the millions to lone moments of prayer, coronations to canonizations, state visits to private suppers were brought to the masses by means of his lens. (He's shown at right with his final subject, in a rare moment on the other side of the camera.)

It doesn't take a world-class shutterbug's eye to see that the apex of this was what the former Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls termed the "pontificate of images": the made-for-film reign of John Paul II.

John Allen once noted that, when John Paul received the then-Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, as the head of Poland's Communist resistance knelt to kiss the papal ring, then rose, the Polish Pope observed that Mari was changing rolls of film.

So the world might see, Wojtyla told Walesa to do it again.

Usually distinguishable at Vatican ceremonies by the three cameras invariably hanging from his neck (plus a back-up in his pocket), Mari took a rare day off last month as his son, Juan Carlos, was ordained a priest by Benedict XVI. The younger Mari is a member of the Legionaries of Christ.

Earlier this month, the chronicler-emeritus spoke to L'Avvenire on a career well-spent, recalling among other things the day when, at one of John Paul's Wednesday audiences, a group of pilgrims called out the photog's name as he rode in his usual Popemobile seat behind the man in white.

"Papa Wojtyla turned toward me," he recalled, "and said, 'So it's Arturo's audience today?'"

As with all his intimates, the ribbing was the hallmark of the late pontiff's great affection; "he really was a father to me in the truest sense of the word," Mari said of his most longstanding subject. "When you're with a person from six in the morning through to the evenings, it can't be different.

"I became one of the family," he said of capturing the daily ins and outs of life in John Paul's never-a-dull-moment household.

"There was never a closed door."

On the late Great's first visit to Argentina, the photographer said he brought 600 rolls of film along -- "but, while we were there, the nuncio had to buy another 200." Total shots for the trip: over 30,000.

When asked which photo he wished he never had to capture, the answer was quick and clear: "the [assassination] attempt of 1981."

Nevertheless, while snapping Pius XII amidst the lush panoply of the papacy's pre-Conciliar splendor was "so emotional," and Paul VI's 1964 journey to Jerusalem was transformative, the man brought an insider's vantage to John XXIII's train-hopping and John Paul I's contagious smile said he found it impossible to pick a favorite shot, or even a list, noting simply that "There are so many moments!"

The sacrifices, too, have been "many" -- Mari thanked his wife for all her support without complaint. But even so, the photographer noted that he never once missed a day of work.

"I've had the honor," he said, "of serving six Popes. And I thank them all for the trust they've always given me."

Given the vantage of his job and his longevity in it, the Pope's photographer has arguably seen more, and heard more, than any member of the Vatican's permanent service in the modern age.

All that, however, goes with him into retirement... and beyond.

With an eye to preserving Mari's work and building a visual record of its modern history, the Holy See recently unveiled an extensive digital archive of its collection of shots, both candid and public, culled from the storeroom of L'Osservatore Romano.

The treasure-trove can be found at

Alessia Giuliani/Catholic Press Photo
PHOTOS 2-7: Arturo Mari/L'Osservatore Romano