November 18th, 2013
12:17 PM ET

Disfigured man embraced by Pope: 'I felt only love'

By Daniel Burke and Livia Borghese, CNN

Rome (CNN) - The photo roused emotions and sparked conversations around the world - but the man at the center of the image says the moment left him speechless.

"I tried to speak, to tell him something, but I couldn't: The emotion was too strong," says Vinicio Riva, the disfigured man embraced by Pope Francis in images that went viral earlier this month.

"It all lasted not more than a minute, but it seemed an eternity," Riva told the Italian magazine Panorama this weekend.

Riva, whose body is 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 in St. Peter's Square, Riva said he kissed the Pope's hand. Francis then pulled Riva toward him, hugging the 53-year-old Italian and kissing his face.

MORE ON CNN: Why the Pope's embrace is so powerful

Riva, who lives in Vicenza in northern Italy, said he suffers from neurofibromatosis Type 1, which causes painful tumors to grow throughout his body. His younger sister and late mother also suffered from the rare disease, Riva told Panorama.

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."

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Faith • Health • Pope Francis

soundoff (829 Responses)
  1. The Jackdaw

    I do not believe in God, but I beleive in people. The position of the pope puts a single person in a position where they can do amazing good. This Pope has impressed me over and over. Catholics and athiests alike could learn a thing or two from him.

    November 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

      What has he actually done though?

      November 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
      • Susan StoHelit

        You should pay attention. Enough to have concern about the mafia being after him, enough to have a few prosecutions started.

        Just for one little sample though – a priest was reported to the diocese here, for allegations of child molestation a month or two ago. Unlike normal – we heard about it – they turned the report over to the police, and removed the priest. That never happened before.

        November 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • Lee

      Like don't judge people on their looks or social income y'all.

      It's a real complex social issue, but if y'all can withstand touching a deformed person for a photo, y'all are heroes who do "amazing good" and should be congratulated equally from Christians and Atheists alike.
      Cause nobody else in the world exists and no deed could be more heroic than touching an ugly person. Y'all.

      November 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
      • doobzz


        November 18, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
      • Meatwad

        Y'all would jump away from this man faster than a cat on a hot tin roof. Y'all.

        November 18, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
        • doobzz

          Don't project your revulsion on the rest of us.

          November 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  2. kris

    Long Live the See of Peter, Long Live the Catholic Church,

    November 18, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • doobzz

      Long Live the Pee of Seter, Long Live the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

      November 18, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  3. Thomas

    Amen. I Well said. I totally agree.

    November 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
  4. ME II

    I am happy that this man found some comfort in the Pope's actions.


    November 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
  5. Lionly Lamb

    Marijuana kills boredom...

    November 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Lee

      So does not being boring.

      November 18, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
      • Lionly Lamb


        November 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  6. Lucas Nelson

    The people who go to these message boards to speak poorly about religion, Catholics and the Pope disgust me. You people are the problem and need to take a good, long look in the mirror. If this offends you, then I'm talking about you.

    November 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Sired Lucas N....

      Offensive behaviorists just seem to be everywhere these days... All one might do is run away... Could you..?

      November 18, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

      I agree. I mean, it's not like any religion, Catholics or Popes have ever done anything wrong... Right?

      November 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
      • Lionly Lamb

        All have done wrongs yet those who try not to alleviate their misgiving deeds become repeat offenders...

        November 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
        • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room


          November 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • ME II

      @Luca Nelson,

      Yes, people who post on here just to trash others can be very disheartening, true.

      November 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  7. Forest Dweller

    There is an Indian saint named Amma (Amritanandamayi) who lives in a single room and sleeps on a sheet on the floor in India. She hugs millions upon millions of people, poor, sick, old... she refuses nobody. She will sit without a break for 18 hours at a stretch until everyone has had her embrace. Her charitable organization Embracing The World raises a lot of money, but she continues to live a simple life with no salary, no possessions. And when traveling the world to share the love, she flies coach. That my friends is real human godliness.

    November 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Sara

      We aren't talking about someone here who like the Buddha gave up a life of wealth to live in poverty for others. This is someone who left school at nine and lived in desperate poverty in a place where few travel domestically, let alone internationally. And now she sees the world and eats well all by hugging people. I don't want to know the woman who may be bringing net joy to the world, but don't make this something it isn't. This woman has a much more prosperous lifestyle than she would otherwise have had.

      I will not, btw, support the recent allegations of her corruption, but if you are interested in this woman you should probably look into it.

      November 18, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
  8. LouAZ

    Long-haired preachers come out every night
    To tell you what's wrong and what's right
    But when asked about something to eat
    They will answer in voices so sweet
    You will eat bye and bye,
    In that glorious land above the sky.
    Work and pray, live on hay,
    You'll get pie in the sky when you die

    November 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Steven

      The Pope showed compassion toward a man who rarely if ever receives it. God bless both of them.

      November 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
      • niknak

        Or not......

        November 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  9. Duke

    Let the actions speak for themselves. I am as cynical as the best of you, but almost all of you, including me, would have a looong way to go to achieve the level of humility and selflessness that this man has.

    I'm all for him. And don't care what the rest of you think. So there.

    November 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • niknak

      He did nothing more then any caring person would/should do.
      Why does that put him up on a pedestal?

      November 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
      • SP FIx

        That may be true, but that begs the question: How many TRULY caring people are there? I mean people who can take responsibility for others outside their immediate circle of friends and family.

        November 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
      • Laura

        I think that what 'puts him on a pedestal' is that most people would NOT have done what the Pope did. Even though any caring person would/should do it (as you stated), the fact that this man was shocked that the Pope welcomed him without fear is evident that most people don't respond to him the way you suggest 'any caring person should/would.' The fact that someone looking at him wouldn't know if he was contagious makes this gesture even more special.

        November 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
        • niknak

          People do unselfish acts, and acts of kindness all the time.
          Just because he did one does not mean it was from "god(s)."

          It was nice to see some compassion, I wish we would see more of that in the media and less guns, violence and celebrity gossip.
          But I don't give him magical powers from god because of that.

          November 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

      'humility and selflessness'

      That's entirely subjective.

      November 18, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  10. Ax

    A friend of mine said to me when Francis was named Pope, he'll do good things. We're both not religious and agree the Catholic Church is very corrupt. That being said, I think my friend was on to something. Keep up the good work Pope Francis.

    November 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  11. Henry

    "Disfigured man embraced by Pope: `I felt only love' "

    From the point of view of this man, he is absolutely right, he felt love when a kind man touched him, when no mortal would have dared to.

    Good for the pope, great for this man who felt that warmth and love from another human being.

    November 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

      Ummmmmm, the Pope is mortal. Also, I imagine many mortal men touch severely disfigured people everyday when they're caring for them.

      November 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
      • Henry

        There are many other people who provide care, who touch ....

        a) They are paid to do it.

        b) They wear gloves, rightfully so because of the threat of infection.

        November 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
        • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

          Family members generally aren't paid to do it.

          Um, the Pope gets paid lots of money and lives in a palace. Sure, touching severely disfigured people isn't part of his job, but it does make a good photo-op.

          Why do you need gloves? Tumors aren't contagious. Actually, the need to wear gloves would probably be more to protect the sick person from infection. If anything, Il Papa is at fault for endangering this guy.

          November 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Henry

          Taking care of family members? you expect to be paid for it and commended to take care of family members? Shame on mortals like you!!!

          November 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
        • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room


          November 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • niknak

      I am sure other people have touched him.
      His family, his friends, his doctor, all of them have touched him.

      Now if after being touched by the Pope he was instantly cured of his disease, then that would give us non believers pause.
      But he is still as disfigured are he was before.

      The Pope did a nice thing.
      Would be better if he went into the Vatican's vast wealth and used it to help feed the poor, instead of hording it all.

      November 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  12. Bootyfunk

    the pope seems like a nice guy and he's said a few nice, if ambiguous, things. but he's done nothing to affect real change. he hasn't changed church policy on g.ays or women. he hasn't done anything to stem the tide of molesters in the church ranks.

    what has the pope actually done?

    November 18, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • shawbrooke

      Im not Catholic, but I appreciate his example of simple living. This Pope wants to put more money into helping people and less into administration. He wants less pomp and ceremony surrounding him. He deserves to be recognized for that.

      November 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
      • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

        Less pomp doesn't mean simple living. I know he's not as ostentatious as his predecessors but I imagine he still lives in complete luxury.

        November 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • RLD

      How much do you think the Pope gets paid? What makes you think he lives in total luxury? Are you unaware of the changes he has made in Vatican law on child abuse? Just because he does not personally call you and advise you on what he has done, and you chose to be uninformed on this Pope, does not make you correct. If just makes you uniformed.

      November 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
      • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

        I assure you that I don't wear a uniform.

        November 18, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  13. Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

    We get it, he's not a complete d!ck. I know that's pretty strange for a high level religious figure, but is doesn't require a daily update.

    November 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Rick in L.A

      Thank you for your rational, common sense post.
      You're right... enough; we get it.

      November 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  14. Belief Blog Bistro

    For breakfast today we have....

    What's wrong? Oh, you looked at the picture didn't you. Don't look at the picture.

    November 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  15. Dyslexic doG

    CNN's "pope-story-a-day" Belief Blog.

    No pope story today ... no problem ... let's just recycle an old one.

    hundreds of catholic stories. how many eastern religions have you covered? ever?

    November 18, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      belief blog should be renamed the christian fluff column.

      November 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  16. Apple Bush

    I'm not touching that dudes head man.

    November 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Someone at CNN is pulling a fast one on us by making us look at this picture AGAIN. I bet there won't be new article for a week now.

      November 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  17. Colin

    Lourdes has the same success rate in curing ailments as jiggling a dead chicken over the sick person while dancing around in naked and covered in blood chanting "Elvis, take this demon out, Elvis take this demon out."

    November 18, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Alias

      But if they had said, "Elvis, take this demon out for drinks." the demon would have gone more often.

      November 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • Jake

      Yeah, but if it were a hot woman doing the dancing, it may cure impotence.

      November 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  18. Pope, Pope and more Pope

    Yes we get the point, all church leaders must strive to show love just like this pope does.

    We would say, more importantly be like Jesus in your dealing toward humanity.

    November 18, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • doobzz

      Does that mean we can call women from countries we don't like dogs, just like Jesus did?

      November 18, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Phillippe Rye

      Rick Warren helped a lot of hurting people in Rwanda, sure there are other ministers out there who live out their faith as a faithful follower of Christ.

      November 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • #Gospels

      “To loose the chains of injustice

      And untie the cords of the yoke,

      To set the oppressed free

      And break every yoke?

      Is it not to share your food with the hungry?

      And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-

      When you see the naked, to clothe them,

      And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

      Then your light will break forth like dawn,

      And your healing will quickly appear;

      Then your righteousness will go before you,

      And the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

      Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;

      You will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

      (Isaiah 58:8 Or your righteous One)
      –Samaritans Purse

      November 18, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.