The Pope's embrace

Love

When Francis reached out into the St Peter's Square crowd to embrace Vinicio Riva, who has neurofibromatosis, an iconic image of the message of the Francis Papacy was born. CNN interviewed Riva in November, 2013.

A few years ago, Vinicio Riva boarded a public bus in the northern Italian town of Vicenza. He went toward the nearest vacant seat but before he could sit down the man in the adjacent seat snapped, "Go away! Don't sit next to me."

"I wanted to answer back, but I controlled myself," recalled Vinicio, now 53 years old. "I felt my blood pressure rise." He stayed on the bus, standing.

"There were lots of people on the bus, and they heard it all, but no one said a word."

Vinicio has long been accustomed to the unkindness of strangers. He suffers from a non-infectious genetic disease, neurofibromatosis type 1. It has left him completely covered from head to toe with growths, swellings and itchy sores. His mother suffered from the same illness before she died, and his sister has a milder version of it.

His aunt, Caterina Lotto, says his undershirt is often completely soaked in blood that seeps from the sores.

In early November, 2013, Vinicio travelled with his aunt and dozens of others from northern Italy to Vatican City, where they attended a general audience held by Pope Francis. Vinicio, who has difficulty staying on his feet for long, was in a wheelchair.

"We didn't think we would be so close to the Pope, but the Swiss Guard kept ushering us forward until we were in a corner in the front row," recalled Lotto, a woman in her late sixties with a quick smile and an infectious laugh.

"When he came close to us," she said, "I thought he would give me his hand. Instead he went straight to Vinicio and embraced him tightly. I thought he wouldn't give him back to me he held him so tightly. We didn't speak. We said nothing but he looked at me as if he was digging deep inside, a beautiful look that I would never have expected."

Vinicio, accustomed to stares of shock and fear, was initially confused by the Pontiff's lack of hesitation. "He didn't have any fear of my illness," he said. "He embraced me without speaking ... I quivered. I felt a great warmth."

In moments of drama, odd details often remain vivid. "I looked down at his shoes," Vinicio's aunt recalled. "They were like this," she said, holding her hands apart and laughing. "I thought yes, this is someone who really walks."

Read full article: Meet the disfigured man whose embrace with Pope Francis warmed hearts (CNN)

MORE:

This photograph is Pope Francis’s real first ‘encyclical’ (The Catholic Herald)

Pope's embrace was heavenly, says man with disfiguring disease (CNS)

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