Pictures of Pope Francis embracing Vinicio Riva went viral. Now Vinicio tells the story of the famous encounter from his own perspective.
“The Pope was not afraid of me; he embraced me. While he caressed me, I felt only love.”
This is the testimony of Vinicio, the disfigured man who received a very personal blessing from Pope Francis, and whose pictures have traveled around the world.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Panorama, Vinicio, 53, spoke with great emotion about this caress from the Pope that took place in St. Peter’s Square last week.
“I first kissed his hand, while with the other hand he stroked my head and wounds. And then he pulled me against him, squeezing me hard and kissing my face. I had my head against his chest and his arms were wrapped around me. And he held me tight, drawing me close to him, and he didn’t let go. I tried to speak, to say something, but I could not: the emotion was too strong. It lasted a little over a minute, but it seemed like an eternity.”
A native of Isola, a small village in the province of Vicenza (Italy), he lives with his younger sister and their aunt, Caterina Morena, who is their guardian. Like his sister (in a milder form), he has suffered from type 1 nuerofibromitosis since he was 15 years old. It is a rare disease that causes painful growths all over the body. Currently, there is no treatment for it.
“The first signs of the disease showed up after I turned 15. I was told that I would be dead in 30 years. But here I am,” he testifies before returning to that overwhelming encounter.
“The Pope’s hands are so tender. Soft and beautiful. And his smile is clear and open. But what impressed me most is that he did not think twice about whether to kiss me or not. I’m not contagious, but he did not know that. He did it, and voilà: he caressed my face, and as he did, I felt only love.”
Needless to say, people with neurofibromatosis are often marginalized because of their appearance. “Vinicio, somehow, was lucky. His aunt loves him deeply and kisses him all day,” explains the journalist.
In the most severe cases, neurofibromatosis disfigures the person so much that even doctors keep their distance. “Once at the hospital, I was taking off my clothes when an African doctor came in. He looked at me and stiffened; he was almost overwhelmed," said Vinicio. "A little later he came to see me and asked my forgiveness. He told me that in Africa, he had already had to deal with terrible diseases, but he had never seen anything so devastating. His words touched me deeply.”
In Isola, Vinicio is accepted by almost everyone. He has his group of friends, with whom he eats pizza or watches soccer games. And he woos all the nurses, buying flowers with part of the 130 euros he earns each month working in a nursing home.