VATICAN CITY — It was May 4, 1984 and Pope John Paul II was visiting Sorok Island off South Korea, a one-time leper colony where several hundred people with the disfiguring disease were receiving care.

Arturo Mari was there, as he was on all the pontiff's trips, a silent witness to almost every papal audience, Mass, vacation and dinner party, public or private.

As the pope's personal photographer, Mari had nearly unrestricted access to John Paul's 27-year papacy, and his verdict as the pontiff's beatification approaches is unwavering: He was a living saint.

The protocol that day in 1984 called for John Paul to enter the Sarok pavilion where the patients were gathered, give a brief speech on the meaning of suffering, then leave. But after surveying the scene, John Paul brushed aside a cardinal who tried to speed him along, and set to work.

"He touched them with his hands, caressed them, kissed each one," Mari said. "Eight hundred lepers, one by one. One by one!"

"For me he was a man of God," the 71-year-old Mari said in an interview this week inside his apartment just steps from the Vatican.

"I can guarantee you he was a living saint, because everything I could see with my eyes, hear with my ears, you cannot believe that this man could do so much."

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify John Paul in St. Peter's Square, bestowing the Catholic Church's confirmation on what Mari and millions of the faithful believed long ago: that Karol Wojtyla lived a saintly life and deserves one of the church's greatest honors.

Beatification is the last major hurdle before being declared a saint, and John Paul is reaching the milestone in record time, a little over six years after his April 2, 2005 death. Benedict put him on the fast track for possible sainthood by waiving the typical five-year waiting period before beatification causes can begin.

The speed with which he is being beatified has drawn criticism that the Vatican is rushing to judgment, given that the clerical abuse scandal occurred on his watch and that history has yet to render its final verdict on the Polish-born pope.

John Paul's defenders say that with Sunday's ceremony, the church hierarchy is merely catching up to what the faithful demanded at his funeral six years ago, when chants of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately" erupted in St. Peter's Square.

Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Vatican's saint-making office, has said no shortcuts were taken in John Paul's case, although he has acknowledged that in addition to the initial waiver granted by Benedict, John Paul's paperwork skipped ahead of the dozens of causes that typically await review.

In the run-up to the beatification, John Paul nostalgia has been running high in Rome— particularly among those who worked with him. His cardinals have been highlighting his encyclicals, decrees and documents which helped shape Catholic teaching on everything from human rights to relations with other Christians and the sanctity of life.

His biographers and spokesmen have been touting his role in bringing down communism, forging unprecedented relations with Jews and turning the papacy into a modern media sensation.

Many point to the 129 countries he visited that made him the most-traveled pope ever, clocking 1.16 million kilometers, or 29 times around the globe.

Mari was there with him through it all, a stocky, broad-shouldered Roman in a dark suit and crisp white shirt, often the only layman in a sea of clergy. He would discreetly snap the pictures that were then handed out as Vatican pool photos to the world's media from his privileged vantage point next to the pope.

He started photographing popes when he was 16 and Pope Pius XII reigned. He was brought into that work in 1956 by his father, who worked in administration at St. Peter's Basilica. He covered each of the five papacies that followed until his retirement in 2008, ending his career with John Paul's successor Benedict.

Many of Mari's best-known images were taken while John Paul was on vacation: a pope sunning himself in the mountains of Val D'Aosta or sitting in the gardens at the summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo. But there were also those that evoke darker days: a picture of the pope lying in a hospital bed after a 1981 assassination attempt; another showing him meeting and forgiving the Turkish man who shot him.

Those and others were featured at a special Vatican exhibit that opened Thursday, a gift Benedict offered in honor of John Paul. The exhibit opens with an enormous replica of the red-backed book of Gospels that was left open on John Paul's casket during his funeral Mass, an image seared in the memories of many that day when the pages fluttered in the wind as if divinely moved.

Mari noted one memorable trip to Sudan in 1993, when John Paul publicly rebuked President Omar Hassan el-Bashir for failing to protect minority Christians. During their private audience, Mari recalled, a visibly angered John Paul made it personal: He raised his hand to el-Bashir and called him a "criminal" who would ultimately be judged by God.

"You translate what I say literally!" John Paul instructed the translator in the room, Mari said.

For Mari, the papacy revolved around these captured moments in history. But he has his own personal recollections too: chatting over a cigarette with then-Monsignor Wojtyla during the Second Vatican Council about what it was like to be a priest behind the Iron Curtain, consulting John Paul during his 4 p.m. strolls in the Castel Gandolfo gardens about what Mari should do as the father of a future priest (his only son was ordained in 2007).

For all the trips and audiences with heads of state, celebrities and religious leaders, Mari's favorite photos — the ones he has framed atop the bookshelf in his sitting room — are from personal moments like these. There's one of Mari and the pope on the occasion of the photographer's 100th foreign trip; another of Mari, the pope and other Vatican aides in short sleeves at the papal summer villa in Val D'Aosta.

Alongside them is Mari's most iconic photograph of John Paul just days before he died. It shows John Paul sitting in his private chapel, holding a crucifix as he watched the Good Friday procession on television, too sick to participate himself in the re-enactment of Christ's death that takes place every year at Rome's Colosseum.

The image is heartbreaking, a pope clutching a crucifix on Good Friday as he himself nears death, resting the cross against his brow in prayer.

"Look at his hands, the strength of his hands, how he grips the cross!" Mari marveled as he studied the photograph. "Look, they're red! He's working really hard. You can see his great suffering, it's like all his life was on that cross."

It was an intensely private moment, and Mari said there were many like that over the 27 years, times when he thought he really had no business being present when a man so dedicated to prayer was speaking to God.

"There were moments when I truly thought as a photographer, as a friend: this man, let's leave him in peace, leave this saint in peace," he said.

The last such moment, he said, was on April 2, 2005. Mari said he visited John Paul in his apartment eight hours before he died, summoned by the pope's longtime secretary to say goodbye. The pope, he said, was lying on his left side on his bed, an oxygen mask resting on the pillow.

"He turned and gave me a smile, and his eyes were enormous. Beautiful! It had been years since I'd seen them like that. He turned, I fell to my knees because the moment, it was stronger than me. He took my hand, he caressed my hand. After a bit he said 'Arturo, grazie, grazie' and turned away." (AP)