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At his weekly audience at the Vatican on June 23, Pope Francis had a special visitor: Spider-Man.

Well, not quite. Mattia Villardita, a 28-year-old man from northern Italy, was dressed as the superhero—his childhood idol. It helps that he channels many of Spider-Man’s most noteworthy qualities by bringing joy to children in need.

Mr. Villardita was invited to sit in the V.I.P. section of the San Damaso courtyard, where the general audience with Pope Francis has been taking place during the pandemic. And he was easy to spot as he sat at the end of one of the rows dressed in a full Spider-Man costume next to a priest wearing all black.

The real-life superhero was invited to the audience because of his everyday commitment to bring joy to suffering children.

At his weekly audience at the Vatican on June 23, Pope Francis had a special visitor: Spider-Man.

The pope is not the first to take notice of Mr. Villardita’s mission to children. Last year, the Italian president conferred upon him the Order of Merit of the Republic, in recognition of his altruism and the creative ways he seeks to lessen the suffering of children, many of whom are terminally ill.

Pope Francis and Mr. Villardita spent a few minutes together after the general audience. In his message at the audience, the pope shared his thoughts with the crowd about the importance of leadership and community. And so, it was only fitting that he got to spend time with someone so intent on being the hero that those who are struggling need.

And Spider-Man also had a special gift for the pope: a mask.

Critics of Pope Francis remarked that a mask was an apt gift for the pope, who has often appeared maskless at the Vatican during this past year. But when AP TV asked Spider-Man why he had given a spare Spider-Man mask to Pope Francis, he replied: “As a sign, to tell him that through these eyes I daily see pain from sick children in hospitals.”

The real-life superhero was invited to the audience because of his everyday commitment to bring joy to suffering children.

Mr. Villardita took selfies with youngsters attending the audience in a Vatican courtyard.

Though he was not actually bitten by a radioactive spider, Mr. Villardita’s own experience of multiple leg surgeries, long hospital stays and his chronic suffering with Crohn’s disease has inspired him to give back to his local health care community.

“It’s about the small things we can all do every day to make some good,” said Mr. Villardita in an interview. “We are all simply passing by in this life, but we also have many ways of making it meaningful,”

A small thing, swinging into young patients’ hospital rooms to bring them hope and a smile, is how Mr. Villardita has brought more meaning into some of life’s tougher moments.

“We are all simply passing by in this life," said Mattia Villardita, "but we also have many ways of making it meaningful,”

Even when Italy was ravaged by Covid-19 and the country was forced into several months of lockdown, Mr. Villardita found a way to continue bringing joy both online and in person.

“The idea to dress up as Spider-Man and engage in goodwill work came from my desire to personally do some good, and show gratitude for the help I received when I was a patient myself,” shared Mr. Villardita in an interview with his employer last September.

The Vatican described Mr. Villardita as “really a good superhero” and quoted him as saying that during Italy’s long months of pandemic lockdown he made more than 1,400 video calls, since he wasn’t able to visit in person, to help ailing children smile.

“When you’re in a hospital, you see the world through a different lens and appreciate small things in life. Many people don’t realize how lucky they really are. So I felt this inner urge to do something, a mission almost.”

Since the news of Spider-Man’s meeting the Pope broke this morning, Mr. Villardita’s Instagram following has grown; he now has almost 29,000 followers.

The Vatican described Mr. Villardita as “really a good superhero”

Besides documenting the characteristic Spider-Man trait of jumping into the great beyond—which he, fortunately, does with a bungee rope and harness tied around his waist—his Instagram also charts his many joy-making missions to pediatric wards. He reads stories to children, stretches out his hand across their bed to touch their tiny fingers, cuddles, hugs and holds them in his arms.

In one photo on Instagram, Mr. Villardita is seen standing inside a cage high above the ground with the ocean in the distance, greeting a young patient as she stands on the bed in her pajamas, leaning forward to touch the window with her hands. In the caption accompanying the photo Mr. Villardita shares the backstory.

As a child he had been a patient in that very same hospital. “To go from patient to special volunteer in just a few years marks a really important rebirth for me,” he writes. “What you see is not just a Spider-Man costume, underneath there is much more; a life mission and a series of episodes that have led to the Mattia you know today.”

Mr. Villardita has been delivering hope and joy to children for the past three years. He is the founder of Supereroincorsia, a group of young volunteers who, like Mr. Villardita, dress up as superheroes, and bring smiles and light-heartedness to the bedside of children who are gravely ill.

Besides documenting the characteristic Spider-Man trait of jumping into the great beyond, his Instagram also charts his many joy-making missions to pediatric wards.

“Because I know pain very well and this is perhaps my superpower, transforming suffering into magic that strikes these souls, leaving them with a pleasant memory of a very difficult life experience and filling my heart with dreams and wonderful memories.”

A hero even without the costume, Villardita continued his essential work throughout the pandemic as a gate and cargo controller at the APM Terminals Vado Ligure port. Still, he took time to connect virtually with young patients and helped them understand that even Spider-Man had to stay home.

Photos of Spider-Man’s interactions with the pope and members of the Swiss Guard garnered attention on social media on Wednesday. The Villanova University theologian and historian Massimo Faggioli tweeted one of the shots and asked for caption suggestions, which invited a slew of creative responses and puns.


With additional reporting from the Associated Press

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