Vincio Riva, 53, who suffers from neurofibromatosis Type 1, a rare disease that causes painful tumors to grow throughout his body, told the Italian magazine Panorama that meeting the Pope left him speechless.
“His hands were so soft. And his smile was so clear and open. But the thing that struck me most is that he didn’t think twice about whether or not to hug me,” he said. “I'm not contagious, but he did not know. He just did it: he caressed me all over my face, and as he did I felt only love.”
He added: “First I kissed his hand while he, with the other hand, caressed my head and wounds. Then he drew me to him in a strong embrace, kissing my face. My head was against his chest, his arms were wrapped around me. It lasted just over a minute, but to me it seemed like an eternity.”
Images of the Pope embracing Riva at the Nov. 6 weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square quickly went around the world, and were especially prominent on social media sites.
Riva’s entire face and head are covered in growths and only his left cheek, warped as if burnt in a fire, is free of them. His feet are deformed and devastated by the sores, which makes walking difficult.
He was accompanied by his aunt, Caterina, and his younger sister Morena, who also suffers from a lesser form of the disease. His mother suffered from the illness and died from it. Riva himself was only expected to live until the age of 30.
Panorama reported that Riva first needed medical attention at the age of two for the genetic condition, and has since had numerous operations on his heart, throat and eyes. The growths first appeared at the age of 15, eventually destroying his appearance.
Neurofibromatosis has also long been associated with the "Elephant Man," the name given to Joseph Merrick, a severely disfigured Englishman who lived in the late 19th century. Researchers believe Merrick may have suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis and Proteus syndrome, a similar congenital disorder resulting in body tumors.
Like the “Elephant Man”, Riva has had to suffer revulsion from passers-by and strangers. “Those who I have known for a long time are kind; the others are horrible,” he told Panorama.
He came to the general audience after making a pilgrimage to Lourdes, which he makes every year with the Italian Catholic group Unitalsi. It was the first time he had gone to St. Peter’s.
Riva said the meeting with Francis marked a new beginning for him: “Later I turned to my aunt and told her: 'Here I leave my pain.'"