The long view

Spaziani gets a quick moment to chat with Pope Benedict XVI during a walk in the countryside.
Spaziani gets a quick moment to chat with Pope Benedict XVI during a walk in the countryside.

Papal photographer looks back on his years with Pope Benedict


by Joe Bollig
joe@theleaven.org

ROME — He has taken portrait photographs of celebrities and cinema greats, including the irascible Gerard Depardieu, glamorous Jacqueline Bisset and even Batman (well, Michael Keaton, from the 1989 film).

But Stefano Spaziani gave up all that glitz and glamour for an even more exciting subject: Pope Benedict XVI.

Becoming a papal photographer was an opportunity, Spaziani explained in an interview with The Leaven last weekend — not a plan.

One day he received an assignment from a newspaper to take photos of Pope Benedict XVI.

“From that day, I was fascinated by the figure of the pope and I have not stopped photographing him,” he said, “becoming a devotee.”

After two years of steady work, he received permanent accreditation from the Vatican, which allows him to photograph the pope at all public events, even traveling with him, when possible. From this front-row seat, Spaziani has witnessed and recorded most of Pope Benedict’s papacy — but, like the other photographers, his exchanges with him have been limited to small talk.

“We are allowed to say hello and exchange a few small words,” explained Spaziani, “and the pope is always kind to us photographers.”

It has been Spaziani’s privilege to see Pope Benedict in a wide range of situations — intimate and spectacular, joyful and sorrowful. In these past few years, especially, some the burden of the office has sometimes weighed heavily on the aging pontiff.

“There are painful times to remember — just days of unpleasant news that has hurt the Holy Father,” Spaziani said. “But I prefer not to talk about it.”

There have been lighter moments, too. One of Spaziani’s favorites involves his son’s cat.

“My little boy longed to show his kitten to the pope, but it was not easy to find a favorable opportunity,” Spaziani said.

During a summer vacation in the mountains where the pope was, the photographer at last saw his chance. Spaziani rounded up his family — including the cat — and headed for high ground.

“The pope had a habit of going out for a walk in the evening,” said Spaziani. After several attempted “stakeouts” failed, the pope stopped one evening to visit a small church.

“We were able to wait at the exit, where a small crowd gathered. The pope, seeing my little boy with the cat in his arms, came up and, with great sweetness, stroked the kitten and blessed my son.”

Spaziani had his camera ready: It is a treasured shot.

Pope Benedict became visibly tired over the course of his papacy, said Spaziani, particularly over the past year. But the photographer never thought he would resign — and never wanted to think about it. Like everyone else, the news caught him by surprise.

“A friend called me,” he said, “but I immediately thought it was a joke.

“But then I knew it was all true.”

Even now, said Spaziani, it doesn’t seem possible. But by the end of February, Pope Benedict will no longer be pope.

“I thought that only a great man can have so much courage, and I’m sad to think of what pain such a decision must have caused him,” said Spaziani.

The departure of Pope Benedict will close a chapter in Spaziani’s life as well, and he knows he will miss him.

And he knows that covering a new pope will take some getting used to.

But when asked whether, after 30 years of photographing celebrities, he might go back to that, his answer was quick — and conclusive.

“I am now a papal photographer for life,” he said.

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