VATICAN CITY (CNS) — For someone who has frequently been shunned and humiliated because of a disease that has severely disfigured his entire body, receiving the pope’s loving embrace was like being in paradise.
Vinicio Riva, who is afflicted with neurofibromatosis, said his brief encounter with Pope Francis Nov. 6 at a general audience in St. Peter’s Square “seemed like forever.”
Images of the pope kissing and embracing the Italian man made headlines, but his identity and background weren’t known until two Italian news outlets found and interviewed him.
“My heart was bursting,” he said. When the pope hugged him tight, “I felt like I was in paradise.”
Riva, 53, lives in a small village near Vicenza in northern Italy with his younger sister Morena Riva, who has the same genetic disorder, and their aunt, Caterina Lotto, who cares for them. The siblings’ late mother also suffered from the disease, which is typically hereditary.
Riva told the Italian magazine Panorama Nov. 18 that what struck him most was the pope didn’t hesitate.
“I’m not contagious, but (the pope) didn’t know that. But he did it, period: He caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I felt only love,” he said.
“First, I kissed his hand, while he caressed my head and wounds with his other hand,” Riva explained.
“Then he pulled me toward him, hugging me tight and kissing my face. My head was against his chest and his arms were wrapped around me. He held me so tightly, cuddling me, and he didn’t let go. I tried to speak, to say something, but I wasn’t able to: I was too choked up. It lasted just a little more than a minute, but, for me, it seemed like forever,” he said.