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. Vincent Paul Valdez


    November 19, 2013 at 2:27 am |
  2. proof

    That's evidence of divine love. That is proof.

    November 19, 2013 at 2:06 am |
  3. Soleil Flux


    November 19, 2013 at 1:33 am |
  4. Tom Vargas

    The truth of what happened is that the Pope did not see a disfigured man, he saw the Spiritual image & likeness of God. The example being set here is Righteous Judgement, not the material judgement of the physical man.

    November 19, 2013 at 12:37 am |
  5. Alexandre

    Pope JPII started it, and this pope is continuing the great tradition of pope of, and for, the people. I hope Francis continues to share the teachings of the church, and of Jesus, for many years to come.

    November 19, 2013 at 12:24 am |
  6. Niall

    Just an FYI Neurofibromatosis is not rare. It's actually one of the most common genetic disorders (in the U.S.)


    November 19, 2013 at 12:12 am |
    • HoundMason

      NF is not rare in itself, it's the TYPE 1 that makes it a rarity.

      November 19, 2013 at 12:18 am |
      • Blueland Buddha

        NF is not rare and Type 1 is the most common form of NF. What is rare is the manifestations this man has endured. 60% of people with NF Type 1 will only see mild to moderate symptoms. God bless this man.

        November 19, 2013 at 6:44 am |
    • Laura

      I think the writer may be mistaken and the man has type 2. I have type one and unless I tell you you wouldn't know. It's usually those with type 2 who develop the tumors like this man.

      November 19, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  7. george

    it made me cry – what a great man – such an amazing example he has set for our world

    November 19, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • Anonymous

      It brought tears to my eyes as well but I didnt know why until I pondered about it. Then it dawned on me that this man, the Pope, if he has this much love to give, how much more would God and Jesus have to give me? Then, it dawned on me, the question, how much I am missing from Him and how much I am wasting without receiving His love? All I can do to get it is to do as much good to others and myself as possible and ask for His love just as this man asked.

      November 19, 2013 at 12:52 am |
      • B

        Your write-up touched me more. Just to be like Jesus everyday!

        November 19, 2013 at 5:52 am |
  8. Adewale Adegoke

    I have such great respect for this man.Religion aside, he has continually strove to show us how to be good christians.He is setting an example for Nigerian pastors , if they are willing to follow thia example. Mahatma Ghandi said 'I like your Jesus,but I do not like your chrisians.You christians are so unlike your christ'.If Mahatma Ghandi was alive, he may be forced to recant that statement.
    The church ia supposed to be a custodian of social reform, propagating love and hope through the land.Now the church represents exclusivity and unfathomable wealth.
    I love this man because, he teaches us to love instead of hate.Love conquers all, it is said.
    Love is a fruit of the holy spirit. Love is of God.Instead of the church to enrich themselves especially in Nigeria, they should nuture the poor and provide an ecosystem for their growth and socioeconomic development. In Nigeria churches preach segregation and propagate envy, hate and the heightened sense of insecurity amongst the poor.
    I love this man and I pray tbat God protects him from the Mafia and other enemies of love.

    November 18, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • Ajeet

      He himself said that his unusual appearance has led to a lifetime of living on the margins. Has he spent lifetime in India living among non-christians. You dragged Gandhi in, why? Read this- "His rejection grew out of an experience he had in South Africa. After reading the Bible and the life of Jesus, he was eager to exploring becoming a Christian. He decided thus to attend a church service. When he reached the door, the church elder asked “where do you think you are going, kaffir....There is no room for kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps”. This is one who was just from reading the life of Christ as an epitome of love, unity, etc. Gandhi did not hesitate to confront Christendom with the principles of Christ."

      November 19, 2013 at 12:46 am |
      • Edwin Barcia

        True. Being a priest, or a pope, for that matter, does not assure one of being a compassionate and decent human being.

        November 19, 2013 at 5:33 am |
    • Ron

      Ghandi's comments about Christians has always seemed bigoted to me. The myriad examples of good Christians are legion.

      November 19, 2013 at 12:46 am |
      • Leave a Reply

        r u sure?

        November 19, 2013 at 12:50 am |
  9. blessyourheart

    I'm not catholic, but I am a Christian and this humbled me. To be honest, Jesus did teach to love and have compassion. Agreed with earlier comment that ALL humans should show this compassion, regardless of religion. This was a sure lesson for me in my own relationship with Jesus and as a human being.

    November 18, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
  10. w8kwses

    Kwai, kwai Nidôbak ...
    What makes the story of the good Samaritan more pointed is, that Samaritans were despised by Jews. So the priest goes by, others go by, and it is the despised Samaritan who helps. That makes Jesus' question, who was the neighbor, more pointed than most of us know. (This I know thanks to my learning for my Master of Pastoral Studies degree.)

    November 18, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
  11. David Finkelstein

    I am a Jew, I say god bless the pope. A true saint leaving amongst us.

    November 18, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
  12. SLN

    If we really think about this logically: this story is not about religion. I don't care what religion anyone is...to each their own. This really is a story human kindness, compassion, respect, love, and empathy for others.

    The Pope's actions are very touching in terms of how he responds to a man clearly in pain. This man is severely disfigured and people probably look at him like a monster rather than a human being who is being tormented through what society sees him and his over all health. This reminds me of an old Mel Gibson movie about a man who was disfigured and everyone judged him by his outward appearance but rather what he is internally.

    Our society should take a good lesson from the Pope and how his compassion for this man is never-ending. Everyone should be treated as a human being instead of an outcast due to their outward appearance.

    November 18, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • Chachina

      Well said. I'm an atheist, an ex-catholic, and so take issue with the pope on many issues. However, he's done some things that I didn't expect. This is about how people should treat each other regardless of the religious consequences. I think he's having an impact on his following & making them rethink some long held beliefs. And that is always a good thing, in my opinion.

      November 19, 2013 at 12:04 am |
  13. formose

    the pope action have renewed the faith Catholics have forgotten that we first human beings made in the image and likeness of GOD, but each one unique at the same time..Pope Francis is doing exactly what we all need to be doing.Simple actions and unprecedented results and postive reactions.

    November 18, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  14. p. senitro

    For an atheist like me, who has seen churches enriching themselves and pastors driving expensive cars, Pope Francis's simple act is simply touching.. it certainly makes me respect church a little more..

    November 18, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • dutchess550

      I am also an atheist but this Pope's cheerful demeanor and lack of pretention is a breath of fresh air. The Pope's calm embrace of the man gave him love and comfort. There is no artifice in this Pope.

      November 18, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  15. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    I would not have much hope for the religious people of the world if not for their apparent belief that the highest expression of their beliefs is empathy.

    November 18, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      When we learn that all humans are our neighbors.

      29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

      30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

      31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

      32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

      33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

      34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

      35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

      36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

      37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

      November 18, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
      • Robert Brown

        Luke 10

        November 18, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  16. Only Love Can Break Your Heart

    But only love
    can break your heart
    Try to be sure
    right from the start
    Yes only love
    can break your heart
    What if your world
    should fall apart?

    November 18, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      When it does,

      Psalm 34:18
      The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.

      November 18, 2013 at 9:45 pm |

      • amen

        November 18, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
  17. Age of Reason

    ...good for the caring Pope, however, objectively this is MAN helping MAN! God does not exist in this or any other situation!


    November 18, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      How very reasonable of you.

      November 18, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
      • Age of Reason

        ...yes,yes and yes! Helps to study electrical engineering!

        November 18, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          Age of reason, please allow me to welcome you to the age of grace.

          November 18, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
  18. JJ

    I find it alarming to see how many atheists and other freethinkers are gushing over this man. If they are being taken in by these PR stunts then the RCC is indeed being more successful than anyone can dream. I, for one, can't forget about all the thousands of children raped, genocide, witches burned and civilizations destroyed by this cult. All of you falling for these stunts would have thought that the Rev. Jim Jones was a great guy too.

    November 18, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      How can you tell if someone is genuine ?

      November 18, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • saggyroy

      The Vatican marketing guys are working overtime.

      November 18, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • whoopdedeaux

      JJ, your litmus test for What Is Tolerable is far too stringent and unyielding. As I read your post, I was struck by the fact that your list of grievances could easily be attributed to virtually every religion, culture, civilization – past, present and probably future. Are you saying that I must turn in my Free Thinker ID Card because I commend the efforts of one man to make a difference in the world? If so, I think I'd rather see you relinquish YOUR credentials first...

      My opinion is my own and not subject to vetting by the belief system of anyone else. You have every right to disagree with me and attempt to persuade me, (and others), to accept your points through rational debate, but you have already lost your argument if you approach it demanding "purity of thought". Doesn't that make you the one preaching Dogma?

      November 18, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • bobburrows

      JJ, you are not wrong in your staements, but I believe that the story was about the the human condition as it pertains to this poor man and his battle with what we all take for granted every day. Obviously he has led a life of being shunned, abuse and misundertsanding. For him to have these few minutes with what he feels is a life changing experience, who are we to question? For a moment in this poor mans life he felt kindness, compassion and love. Who are we to try to rationalize his experience when we have not walked in his shoes?
      This is a puff piece about what one man did for another.... a good thing.

      November 18, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
      • whoopdedeaux

        Bob Burrows, you've outlined the heart of the matter. Thank you. As a person who lacks faith in any religion, I nevertheless recognize its importance in the lives of those who do believe.

        As you pointed out, this gentleman has lived a very difficult life and I'm sure his faith has helped him endure some very dark days, and the Pope is at the center of his belief system. To be treated with such love and acceptance by Pope Francis had to be one of the most moving experiences of his life, and I'm not willing to belittle it or minimize its meaning just because I don't personally share his beliefs.

        In a very different way and for very different reasons, I DO share his admiration and respect for Pope Francis. The Pope made a small, humble gesture of simple humanity toward this man, but it's one in a long line of such gestures we've seen so far, and I'm impressed.

        Thank you again for putting the gist of this story into perspective and bringing our attention back to what really matters.

        November 18, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
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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.