A different type of participant dropped in on Pope Francis’ general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday — Spider-Man.
A man dressed in a full, skin-tight, red, black and blue costume of the comic book and film character — including head cover — sat in the VIP section of the audience in Vatican’s San Damaso Courtyard.
He sat quietly next to a priest dressed in black who appeared to be unperturbed by the colorful character with big white eyes in the next seat.
The man behind the mask turned out to be Mattia Villardita, 27, from northern Italy. He was given a place in the VIP section because of his work dressing up in superhero costumes and visiting sick children in hospitals.
At the end of the audience, he was introduced to the pope and gave the pontiff a Spider-Man mask.
Last year, Italian President Sergio Mattarella gave Villardita an award for his work with sick children.
“I try to alleviate some of the suffering of hospital patients,” Villardita told the Catholic News Agency.
“I’m Catholic and I’m very happy about this experience,” Villardita said afterward, noting that Pope Francis already knew who he was and about his “mission.”
“He told me to take a lot of selfies with the kids in the square,” he said.
Villardita was made a Cavalier of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, an honor conferred on him by the Italian president for his actions as an “everyday hero.”
The real-life Peter Parker told CNA that he has a day job, but he uses his free time to dress up and visit hospitals.
And why Spider-Man?
“It’s my favorite character from when I was a kid,” he explained.
“This all came about from a personal story,” he said. “I was a patient for 19 years at the Gaslini Pediatric Hospital in Genoa, because I was born with a congenital malformation.”
As a child, Villardita underwent multiple surgeries and spent months recovering in hospital rooms.
“And that experience has helped me to help these patients and their families,” he explained.
Villardita launched his project, “Superheroes in the Ward,” two years ago. Some of his friends volunteer with him, also dressed up as popular characters.
And the Spider-Man fan did not let last year’s COVID-19 outbreak slow him down. When Italy went into a strict lockdown, he created a video call service to let children still meet and talk to their favorite superhero. – with a report from Reuters