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. Uncle Sam

    What the world needs now is love, sweet love...
    that's the only thing that there's just too little of.


    November 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  2. What a guy

    Hands down-he's the best Pope to come along in a century.

    November 18, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  3. Hossein

    I'm truly impressed by Pope Francis. He has created a new wave of admirers and new energy from all faiths and practices. . . "“Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul. If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain. If you have no empathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain.”

    Saadi (sufi mystic from Iran, 11th Century).

    November 18, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Sired Hossein...

      Alas a good wind blows and billows toward relentlessly suffering on its' paces... Soon to be but a fragmented billow of windiness... Strength has become mellowed and shallow it stands... And yet other good winds are ready to take up their billows strenuously easing and awing away... Windy windings give way yet in the winds' vastness will it never be undone...

      November 18, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  4. menotyou

    Anytime you think you have problems, you should remember what this man deals with on a daily basis. And anyone who isn't inspired by this pope and this man must be a Republican or a Kardashian.

    November 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • david fillmore

      I looked at the photos and it brought tears to my eyes. The Pope is indeed a man of God.

      November 18, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • mp

      Actually the Kard are Dems. and you sir are an imbecie. A great thing happens and the leftist propaganda believing msnbc watching uneducated idiot has to comment on politics. You are a true fool.

      November 18, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  5. Pritka

    A simple kind and beautiful act by a simple kind and beautiful person. I am no longer a Catholic but wish this gentle pope well.

    November 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • tony

      The UK Royal family can afford great PR too.

      November 18, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  6. Enough Already

    Perhaps some should read my post again. You will notice that I said nothing against the new Pope personally, as I too am impressed by acts of love and kindness no matter who it comes from. I was making an observation about the motives of the article and the lack of accountability of the Vatican. I think it's important for all of us to keep asking how God feels about everything he sees, including decades of hypocrisy and unprecedented abuse. It's unfortunate, that most are "okay" with this, considering the numerous historical precedents that God has preserved in His Word for all of us to learn from.

    November 18, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  7. whoopdedeaux

    I am an atheist with no interest in religion beyond the positive or negative impact it has on the lives of believers.

    From the start, this Pope has captured my attention and my respect. I am unimpressed with the posts seeking to belittle the importance of his actions so far or the motives behind them – for me, it's significant that he's sending a message to the world at large that he wants to change the culture at the Vatican and emphasize the importance of the spiritual health of his "flock" over the dogma of the Church. I don't have to believe in his religion or his god to admire his leadership in the Catholic Church and whatever political influence he wants to exercise.

    Has he performed any miracles? No. (Unless he's successful in overhauling the Vatican Bank!)

    Has he CLAIMED to perform any miracles? Nope.

    Has he been a breath of fresh air in an ancient hierarchy? I think so.

    Has he brought a kinder, gentler message from his Church to the world at large? Absolutely.

    I think that's a pretty good start, and this non-believing heathen is willing to accept his gestures of compassion and good will at face value and I hope he's successful in accomplishing his goals.

    Does he

    November 18, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • MD

      Great post!

      November 18, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson rebukes Richard Dawkins

      Yeah, agree. There are quite a few sociopathic atheists that post on this site; they seem completely unable to demonstrate their self-proclaimed superior morality to that of the religious.

      Francis comes across as someone who cares about everyone, and I hope he manages to fix the broken Church – everyone's for the better if he does.

      November 18, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
      • Lionly Lamb

        You wrote, "Francis comes across as someone who cares about everyone.."

        Everyone cares... Some more... Some less... Societies' cares are sometimes problematic discordances within varying hierarchal circles resulting in cultural shifts... Sometimes these shifts are positive and sometimes not so much... Nevertheless, 'Global Caring' is situated as being a game of 3-dimensional chess...

        November 18, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
        • Youtube - Neil deGrasse Tyson rebukes Richard Dawkins

          Give it a rest.

          November 18, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Sired One... "he (Pope Francis)wants to change the culture"...

      Any emergence of a cultural shift within social developments becoming known upon the vast sea of economic capitalisms should be allowed to flourish and grow within an unending scope of seeded moderations... Cultures are but an unending malleable liturgy passed on by ever altering commentaries...

      November 18, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
      • whoopdedeaux

        You know those word games where people string random multisyllabic words together in a pattern that seems to replicate actual language, but it's really just an amusing pastime? Well....just sayin'...

        November 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm |
    • ancv1992

      Thank you for such an honest and considerate post. Very well said.

      November 18, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
  8. One Dog Mama

    I'm not Catholic but the more I see and read about this Pope, he is one of a kind. We could all learn a lesson from this gesture – it is not the outside that is important but what is inside of a person.

    November 18, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • MD

      Exactly right.

      November 18, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  9. The real deal

    "... but it seemed an eternity." His Holiness probably went to sleep – or forgot what he was doing at the moment.

    November 18, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • MD

      NOT likely.

      November 18, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
  10. Lionly Lamb


    November 18, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • No pach kids!

      This child abombdination! Strawbarry Pach kids is sine of Satan!

      November 18, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
  11. Lionly Lamb


    November 18, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
  12. barbra k

    Pope Francis is a fantastic person. He portrays everything that is good. He is not pretentious. He does for himself and doesn't expect and demand to be waited on. He is totally humble. He portrays the image of Christ. He IS love.

    November 18, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Moargus

      That'd actually make him better than Christ. He actually does stuff.

      November 18, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  13. lroy

    Good think this disease isn't contagious (but apparently generic). I think this is something like what Merrick had (very similar). Don't think the poor soul will be cured, but who knows.............................

    November 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • JJ

      The pope passed up an opportunity to prove that prayer works by praying over this poor man that he become completely whole. Since prayer does not work he was wise to just show compassion which is a power we all possess.

      November 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • carioca

      Hi. No this disorder is NOT contagious, but it is genetic. Nor is it as rare as what the author leads his audience to believe. NF affects 1 in 3,000 people. In fact is is more common than other more well known and well funded disorders. Manifestations of the disorder range from mild to severe and can include the tumors as well as scoliosis, learning disabilities, tumors on the optic nerve that can lead to blindness among others. I happen to have a MUCH milder form of NF1. Mine is a genetic mutation. However, people with NF have a 50% chance of passing it on to their offspring. In regards to Merrick, I believe he had another condition entirely- I remember watching something on the Discovery Channel- or NatGeo about him. I know I am being completely selfish, because this story is not about NF, but I hope this kind gesture by Pope Francis sheds more light on NF and especially on people like this man with such a severe form.

      November 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
      • coco


        November 18, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  14. Omar Sadiq

    I am a Muslim but every act of this great Pope is noteworthy. This world really needs more people like Pope Francis. A person can be of whichever religion but humanity is for all. Hail Pope Francis!!! Lots of love & respect – Omar

    November 18, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  15. Madtown

    But the Pope showed no sign of discomfort as he approached
    What a wonderful gesture. It should be the norm in our world, but sadly it is not. Great example set by this pope, one that can be followed by the religious and non-religious alike.

    November 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  16. RId

    I am not Catholic nor Christian but this man is a great man I think hes just what the world needed ❤

    November 18, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • goddog

      The world? You are aware that there are thousands of religions out there, peaceful ones as well, who have their own ideas about that...

      November 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
      • MD

        Your point is what, exactly?

        November 18, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
  17. Lionly Lamb


    November 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  18. Lionly Lamb


    November 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room

      You must be a stoner if this makes you laugh.

      November 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  19. Your socks stink

    ?????? What the.......?

    November 18, 2013 at 8:12 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.