That hug from the pope “felt like paradise”

Pope Francis' General Audience

Pope Francis hugs Vinicio Riva in St. Peter’s Square at the end of his general audience, November 6, 2013. CNS photo/ Claudio Peri, EPA)

VATICAN CITY — When an Italian photographer published images of Pope Francis embracing a man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, no one knew his name or where he was from.

Two Italian news outlets have found the man and interviewed him about that morning¬† Nov. 6 in St. Peter’s Square. He said the pope’s embrace felt like being in heaven.

“My heart was bursting,” he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. When the pope hugged him tight, “I felt like I was in paradise.”

Vinicio Riva, 53, lives in a small village near Vicenza in northern Italy with his younger sister Morena, who has the same genetic disorder, and their Aunt Caterina, who cares for them.

Vinicio told the Italian magazine Panorama that the thing that struck him most was that the pope didn’t hesitate at all.

“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 only felt love.

First, I kissed his hand, while he caressed my head and wounds with his other hand,” Vinicio 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.

“The pope’s hands are so soft. Soft and beautiful. And his smile (is) bright and wide.”

Neurofibromatosis results in numerous, often painful benign tumors. Vinicio said they constantly itch and he’ll wake in the morning with his shirt soaked with blood from scratching.

“The first signs appeared after I was 15. They said I would be dead by 30. Instead, here I am.”

He was frequently shunned by people who didn’t know him, he said.

The worst episode, he said, occurred one day as he sat in the front of a bus and a passenger told him to go sit in the back, saying, “‘You horrify me and I don’t want to look at you.’ No one, not even the driver came to my defense. In fact, many passengers agreed with the man. That really hurt,” he said.

Aunt Caterina told Panorama that when she and Vinicio would be sitting in hospital waiting rooms when he was young, she would hold him close and hug him tight whenever people cringed or moved away in fear.

She embraced him “to make them understand” — both Vinicio and the others — that there was nothing repulsive or scary about him, she said.

Vinicio works as a volunteer in a retirement home, where his father lives. However,¬†when they see each other, their father can’t bring himself to hug his son, said Morena, the sister. Their father “is embarrassed by his disease. He only says, ‘Do you want a coffee?'”

But Vinicio disagreed with his sister, Morena, and said their father has his own way of showing his love.

He told Panorama that he has lots of friends and is loved by almost everyone in his village. He goes out with friends for pizza and to watch soccer matches. He also flirts with the nurses, the magazine said, and, although he only earns a small allowance volunteering, he spends a good chunk of that money on them.

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