A real-life hero who dresses as Spider-man when visiting sick hospitalised children wore his costume as he was greeted by Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday.
While Francis is usually the star at Vatican gatherings, Matteo Villardita was the attention-grabber among the public lined up during the pontiff's weekly audience.
Mr Villardita, 28, dons the comic-book and movie super-hero outfit to cheer up hospitalized children, like those at the Vatican's pediatric hospital which he planned to visit later on Wednesday.
Sweating under his costume in Rome's heat wave, Villardita said he asked Pope Francis to pray for the children and their families.
The man told AP TV that he gave Francis a spare mask, 'as a sign, to tell him that through these eyes I daily see pain from sick children in hospitals.'
Villardita, with a costumed arm, reached out and touched Francis, who wore no mask against COVID-19, on the back on an arm as he greeted the pontiff.
Said Villardita: 'It was very exciting because Pope Francis immediately understood my mission.'
Villardita took selfies with youngsters attending the audience in a Vatican courtyard.
'But the real superheroes are the children who are suffering and their families who are fighting with so much hope,' Villardita told the Vatican's media outlet, Vatican News.
The Vatican described Villardita as 'really a good super-hero' and quoted him as saying that during Italy's long months of pandemic lockdown he made more than 1,400 videocalls, since he wasn't able to visit in person, to help ailing children smile.
Villardita, who has a day job in a terminal shipping company in Italy's northwestern Liguria region, leads an association for other hospital volunteers who dress up as superheroes.
Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, they continued their work. 'I did more than 1,400 video-calls, as I could not go in person,' Villardita told Vatican News.
A former paediatric patient who underwent several surgeries to treat a congenital disease, Villardita was awarded an honorary knighthood in December by Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
From Marvel to the Vatican! Spider-Man Meets the Pope: 'A Really Good Superhero' https://t.co/Hl1Dgzc9gu— People (@people) June 23, 2021
The super-hero first appeared in 1962 in comic books published by Marvel Comics, and has gone on to be one of the most popular and commercially successful super-heroes, and one of the most recognisable.
Spider-man has featured in multiple blockbuster movies, many with him as the titular character, and is very popular among children.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.