ROME – At the end of his weekly Wednesday audience, Pope Francis and Spider-Man shook hands in Rome, with the superhero handing the pontiff a mask.

Although the pope often will graciously put on a hat when it is offered to him, he didn’t try on the mask.

The moment had been building up ever since TV cameras captured a man dressed in a Spider-Man costume in the Cortile di San Damaso, where the papal audiences are being held to prevent big crowds, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The picture of the two went viral, with some people in social media adding the line, “with great power comes great responsibility,” used in the comics and movies by the character’s Uncle Ben.

Although some hypothesized this was a publicity stunt by Marvel Studios to promote the next Spider-Man movie, the man behind  the super-hero costume was a real-life hero: Italian Mattia Villardita, 28.

His super power? Surviving a congenital malformation that had him spend 19 years of his life in and out of hospitals. His responsibility? Giving children in hospitals a reason to smile, by visiting them when he’s not working at the port of the Italian town of Vado Ligure.

“I know what children and their families feel in the rooms of a hospital,” the young man told Italian Tele Nord last December, after it became public that President Sergio Mattarella had nominated him for Italy’s Order of Merit.

“The idea of Spider-Man was born from my unbridled passion for this character,” he said.

Six of his friends decided to join him, forming their very own super-hero group, and they visit children in hospitals because working as a group “is even better for trying to cheer the dark moments of these people who are facing these battles every day.”

Italy’s highest honor was given to him for “the altruism and imaginative initiatives with which he contributes to alleviating the suffering of the youngest hospital patients,” according to public records.

Even during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, Villardita was still hard at work: He donned the costume and made some 1,400 video-calls to children.

Though this is arguably the first time Pope Francis meets with a grown-up faithful donned in full super-hero costume, this is far from being the first-time popes, saints and superheros have crossed paths. In fact, two of the most well-known saints of the 20th century – Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta – had their own comic books produced by Marvel Comics in 1983 and 1984.

Life of Pope John Paul II Vol 1 (1983). (Credit: Marvel Comics.)
Mother Teresa of Calcutta Vol 1 (1984).
(Credit: Marvel Comics.)

St. Francis of Assisi also had its own sold-out comic, Francis, Brother of the Universe.

And some modern-day saints, though not yet featured in their own comic books, have been known for being fans of the genre, such as Italian Carlo Acutis, a 15-year-old English-born Italian who died of leukemia in 2006 and was declared blessed by Pope Francis last year.

Though he was brought a step closer to sainthood for his apostolic zeal, one of the most well-known pictures of him shows Acutis wearing a Spider-Man costume when he was a child.

Blessed Carlo Acutis, dressed like Spider-Man, in an undated picture. (Credit: courtesy

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma