Last week Italian newsweekly Panorama ran a profile of the man behind the photograph that may very well become one of the defining images of Pope Francis’ papacy. Readers will remember it, I am sure—a man severely disfigured by tumors was embraced by the Holy Father after his general audience address on November 6.
The identity of the man, believed to suffer from neurofibromatosis, had up until now been a mystery. His name is Vinicio Riva, and he is from Vicenza, in Northern Italy.
Riva, whose head and neck are covered with tumors due to a rare disease, said his unusual appearance has led to a lifetime of living on the margins.
That is, until he showed up at St. Peter’s Square on November 6.
Riva went to Rome on the advice of a friend with whom he travels to Lourdes, the Catholic shrine in France visited by thousands of ailing and infirm pilgrims each year.
After meeting Francis, Riva said he kissed the Pope’s hand. Then the Pope pulled Riva toward him, hugging the 53-year-old Italian and kissing his face.
Riva continued, “I tried to speak, to tell him something, but I couldn’t: The emotion was too strong. It all lasted not more than a minute, but it seemed an eternity.” …
The first signs of the disease began when he was 15, Riva said, and since then, he has often felt ostracized because of his unusual appearance.
But the Pope showed no sign of discomfort as he approached, said Riva. Instead, the pontiff’s face broke into a calm smile.
“But what most astonished me is that he didn’t think twice on embracing me,” Riva said. “I’m not contagious, but he didn’t know. He just did it; he caressed all my face, and while he was doing that, I felt only love.”