The severely disfigured man whom Pope Francis blessed and embraced in St. Peter’s Square two weeks ago has spoken for the first time of his encounter, saying it left him speechless.
Vinicio Riva, 53, who suffers from neurofibromatosis Type 1, a rare disease that causes painful tumors to grow throughout his body, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that witnessing the Pope’s compassion was like “being in Paradise.”
“His hands were so soft and his smile was so clear and open,” he said in another interview with Panorama, an Italian magazine. “But the thing that struck me most is that he didn’t think twice about whether or not to hug me. 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.”
“First I kissed his hand while he, with the other hand, caressed my head and wounds,” he added. “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.”
Afterwards, he said he couldn’t sleep and that the encounter made his heart beat so fast he thought he “would die.”
Images of the Pope embracing Riva at the audience quickly went viral.
His entire face and head are covered in growths – what he calls “gnocchi-shaped tumors” – and only his left cheek, warped as if burnt in a fire, is free of them. His feet are also severely deformed by the sores, which makes walking difficult.
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.
Many have made similarities 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 Joseph Merrick, Riva has had to suffer revulsion from passers-by and strangers. “Those who I have known for a long time are kind,” he told Panorama. “The others are horrible.”
He was accompanied by his aunt who cares for him and his younger sister, 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.
A native of the northern Italian town of Isola Vicentina, he stacks shelves and sorts boxes at a local institute but can still ride around town on a bicycle. He lives in a council flat that he shares with his sister and aunt.
Riva came to the general audience after making a pilgrimage to Lourdes which he makes every year with Unitalsi, an Italian Catholic group that takes the disabled to Marian shrines. It was the first time he had been taken to St. Peter’s.
Pope Francis’ expressions of affection for pilgrims have become well known and widely appreciated. During his walkabouts, he always makes a special effort to tend to the sick and disabled.
Riva said meeting the Holy Father marked a new beginning for him: “Later I turned to my aunt and told her: "Here I leave my pain."”