By Hannah Brockhaus
People attending Pope Francis’ weekly audience on Wednesday, and those following via livestream, were surprised to see sitting among the crowd a man dressed head-to-toe in tight red and blue garb decorated with a silver web.
Why was Spider-Man at the Vatican?
The man inside the costume is Mattia Villardita, a 28-year-old Italian who dresses up as the comic-book character to visit sick children in hospitals across the country.
“I try to alleviate some of the suffering of hospital patients,” he told CNA.
Villardita was at the June 23 general audience, held inside San Damaso Courtyard, to meet Pope Francis and to give him his very own Spider-Man mask.
“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.
Last year, 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.
He made more than 1,400 video calls before returning to the hospitals in person in December.
When he shook hands with Pope Francis, the part-time Spider-Man told him about the suffering of the kids and their families that he sees every day.
The moment “was really, really moving,” he said.