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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    November 19, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Indian food changes things.

      November 19, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
      • Average Joe

        You are definitely a relative of George W !

        November 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Again, I do not understand your post.

          November 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
        • Average Joe

          Then you've proved the connection !

          November 19, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Ok, please explain how I have proved the connection I guess, since this is important to you for some reason.

          November 19, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  2. angelicaventure

    Reblogged this on Angelica Venture and commented:
    Lately, I've been asking the Lord to change my heart on how I see people. Then the photo of the Pope embracing the disfigured man went viral. Now I realize I need to ask him to change my heart, not on how I SEE people but how I LOVE people... CNN's belief blog shares a brief and beautiful interview with Vinicio Riva, the man in the photo with the Pope.

    Angelica V.

    November 19, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Sired Angel...

      Reflective recollections pushing the boundaries around stressfully ritualized adversities do either gain or lose the conjectures around socialized conditionings within each and every individualized being's mental abilities...

      November 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • d

      NF can be very disfiguring as you see with this poor man. Many people would be repulsed, but this pope embraced him. I wish more people would learn to see with their heart and not their eyes. I think you have already learned that. 🙂

      November 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  3. Mamman Solomon

    Remain BLESSED Baba Pope for the practical christianity.

    November 19, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  4. guest

    I believe the Pope is a con-artist. Con-artists thrive on the ability to be able to win the confidence and love and support. I know: I’ve lived with a con-artist; I thought he was the nicest person you could ever want to meet—then BAM! One day I realized he had ripped me off to the tune of $1500.00, but that was not so bad: a lady who thought he was a great benefactor and lover: he ripped her off for $5000.00.

    November 19, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • autumn crisp

      Very well could be. But I would hate to live my whole life paranoid that someone displaying compassion for his fellow man has bad intentions. It is obviously dangerous to consider such an individual anything more than a very compassionate human being, otherwise you most likely do not realize the bill of goods you are buying. There are aspects to what some of the things this man has done that deserve praise from his fellow man, IMHO.

      November 19, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Leo

      So the Pope is a con-artist? Really? How so?
      The Pope was doing work (if we want to call it that) long before he was the leader of the Church.
      He truly is doing what Jesus Christ wants all of us to do, love one another, be humble, and live a good life.
      I pray for you that one day you find peace and understanding.

      November 19, 2013 at 11:36 am |
      • Crom

        He could be prosecuted in many countries for being the head of an international criminal ring, but that doesn't faze you I bet.

        November 19, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  5. Darwin

    I'd like to see an Atheist in the news, performing the same acts of compassion and mercy. Perhaps then, they wouldn't be so repulsive.

    November 19, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • I can google

      Bill gates, a single atheist, has donated $36,854,000,000 in his lifetime to hungry, diseased, homeless people across the planet while the Vatican takes in billions every year.

      November 19, 2013 at 9:54 am |
      • guest

        \Where is your proof that Gates is an atheist? From what I have read, I think at most he is agnostic, or rather, he is just not religious and will not commit to any religion. Most big business personalities and celeberities are not very religious, their god is money and fame.

        November 19, 2013 at 10:37 am |
      • Ocean

        I heard he donates about 60% of what he makes to charity. The Walton(they own Walmart)family on the other hand donates little and combined they have trillions of dollars. Bill Gates isn't greedy and he earned what he has but having money hasn't gone to his heard. Even though he's an atheist, he gives so much of what he makes to charity. I know "mega church pastors" live in huge houses while not doing a thing for the poor or anyone else. Bill Gates is someone people can look up to.

        November 19, 2013 at 11:05 am |
      • facundo noe

        yes but it gives people faith and something to belive in a wolrd where hope is missing

        November 19, 2013 at 11:25 am |
      • joshua waits

        Donating money doen't make one a saint...U hatemongers criticize the Pope whether he does good or bad.I doubt seriously that God needs any of our flawed theologies to help him judge someone.Who wa the Pope conning...the man that he showed compassion and love to?Everyone is out to judge his fellow man...That's the real abomination in this world.Thanks for proving my point,with your naive,shallow thoughts.

        November 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
      • Responding to the Pride

        No doubt that his substantial contributions are a good thing...but you are comparing apples to oranges. Those with wealth should give of their wealth. Those without wealth should give of their compassion. Both can be tangible, both can be useful, but they shouldn't be compared–they can't be. Neither is greater than the other.

        November 19, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
        • Crom

          You think wealth is equal to compassion? Wow, my jaw just hit the floor.

          November 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
      • Responding to the Pride

        Crom...not what i meant–at all. However, the giving of wealth to help a starving person, is better than a freak'n hug any day.

        November 19, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
      • My Dog is a jealous Dog

        And Bill Gates is on the verge of eradicating polio from the planet forever (barring escape from some secret laboratory).

        November 19, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • ME II

      Most Atheists don't get the amount of coverage that the Pope gets.

      November 19, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  6. Agnostickids

    I'm not a christian, and I don't think organized religion is working out well for the world, but the Pope isn't a bad guy at all. He's actually practicing what he preaches! I think that's pretty wonderful.

    November 19, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • pee wee herman

      Many Christians live out a life of love, compassion, kindness, generosity, etc. That is y this dump sucks. All of it is garbage. Unfair doesn't cut it. It is satanic to focus exclusively on whatever they find to insult Christianity. Like Hitler was a christian and encouraging the asp Sammy.

      November 19, 2013 at 9:39 am |
    • Ocean

      The stories that are produced by the media are typically biased, stating only one side of it. If atheists base everything they hear about Christians on your own experiences, what you read about, or what the mainstream media produces, your views about all of them are based on lies. So blaming every Christian, even Christianity, for the crusades is BASED on hatred and ignorance not facts. I've been blamed by many atheists before that somehow I am partly responsible for so much deaths in this world that Christianity "caused". They don't blame people for what they do, they need and want to blame Christianity because it's easy.

      November 19, 2013 at 11:11 am |
      • pee wee herman

        Convincing dodo

        November 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • Crom

        Your religion is the problem, not your personal wonderfulness that ignores 99 percent of your religion in favor of rose-colored glasses that reinforce your delusions.

        You follow rules of the religious sort, therefore if those rules are evil, this should be pointed out to you so that you might have a chance to turn away from evil crazy-talk.

        If we simply wait for mental illness to be correctable and curable, we could do that too, as your religion will die a quick painless death at that point as fast as we can process everyone and get you all cured of your madness.

        So you don't like people pointing out the criminal things you do that show your religion to be evil? Big surprise there. Not.

        November 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  7. d

    This story is just beautiful. I really do wish reporters would get their facts right though. NF type 1 is Not by any means rare. One in ever 2500 births result in a spontaneous mutation of the NF Gene, The number of people that have it is much higher as a person who has it has a 50/50 chance per child of passing it on.

    November 19, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • solaafrica

      reporters aren't doctors. they write what others puke out of their mouths as gospel truth. there is either no doctor here to explain to us

      November 19, 2013 at 9:48 am |
      • d

        I know they do. I am not a doctor but You can take my word for it, as to what I say about this disorder. This man has been horribly disfigured from the disorder, I can only imagine what other issues he has because of it. Being this disfigured is rare. Most people who have it, you'd never even know unless either they told you or you knew what you were seeing.
        I have NF 1.

        November 19, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • Ocean

      Mainstream news won't report facts because they need a story and don't want all the facts at first. It's kinda sad that many people base their views and opinions on the lies that are produced by the media. If a Christian man bombs an abortion clinic but claimed God told him to do it, would you believe him without seeing all the facts leading up to why he did it? The media loves hyping up stories just to have a story and people seriously follow everything they tell them about anything. There's more to every story than reporters will report but of course, seeing only one side of it, causes people to think its right. How brainwashed people are today.

      November 19, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  8. autumn crisp

    Indyman1 says Knowing Christ knows no denomination. yet it sure seems to take a lot of denominations to try to understand "Him"!

    I don't create people and then allow them to think and do crazy things thinking they are doing my will – like letting their children die by refusing medical care. That's the difference between me and your God.

    don't create people and then allow them to think and do crazy things thinking they are doing my will like become serial killers. That's the difference between me and your God.

    snap snap

    November 19, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • True enough

      Did you know in the past several years, there have been some human sacrifices performed from people claiming to be doing the will of the God of the Bible? Yep.

      November 19, 2013 at 9:03 am |
  9. prophet

    the christians need to realise how mislead they are and have been, Our Saviour is not christs or jsus, this is a deception, and thats why the christians are wealthy because if they really believed in God then they would give their weath to the sick and disabled.

    November 19, 2013 at 8:55 am |
  10. prophet

    tell him to go amongst those with contagious illnesses because if he and the vatican and the catholics say he represents God then let him prove it, but he won't because the real saints are the nurses and doctors and those that help the poor and the sick improve their quality of life and to relieive some of the difficulties which the pope and the vatican could easily do if they wanted to, but they are misleaders of people. and people think that thye represent God, what an insult to God.

    November 19, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • Faith

      Why turn an act of kindness, love and compassion into a debate on making him prove the pope is an emissary to Christ.

      You sound just like to people who persecuted Jesus for his act of kindness and love. Ironic isn't it?

      November 19, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • solaafrica

      you are heading south while the rest are headed north. Did you even pass your graduate school? I think you are a failure in your own life and your own way. Even my 2 months old boy is reasoning more maturely than you. Ask your mother if she is still virgin after she gave birth to you because I tend to think you were vomited and not given birth to. Big up

      November 19, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  11. prophet

    anyone will tell you that nurses and doctors also do the same but what about the people that are hungry and poor, tell the pope to go and share out the vatican wealth, but he won't do this because he would have to give up the wealth and yet that is what Our Saviour is also about, Love is not just talking about as Sy Paul said, but do something as well. This cost the pope nothing, the illness wasn't even contagious, the catholic pagan religion is misleading people.

    November 19, 2013 at 8:40 am |
  12. Tracy

    Love Pope Francis who truly emulates Christ.

    November 19, 2013 at 8:35 am |
  13. Guilherme


    November 19, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • Marcel

      Precisa colocar um comentário tão retardado? Quanto anos você tem? 8? 9? Usa seu tempo na Lan-house para acessar seu facebook.

      November 19, 2013 at 8:33 am |
  14. solaafrica

    I believe if this man was in Saudi or any other Muslim world he could have been killed by those stupid extremists. Now let the world see what a man of God can do. By your faith you live to see the light of this world. This also goes to other Clergies who think still play with the mindset of many. Time has come for you to tell the world the truth about what the Jesus teaches and not what you think is right.
    I feel humbled by this.

    If you are a protestant you will always remain a protestant. Catholic is the way and the means to the Lord Jesus Christ.

    November 19, 2013 at 7:30 am |
    • Christian Believer

      "Catholic is the way and the means to the Lord Jesus Christ." ?? Really? Show me where it says that in the bible.

      Matthew 7:1-5

      “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

      November 19, 2013 at 7:41 am |
      • solaafrica

        What you can be sure of is that you are a christian. But you are not sure whether you are a believer or not. You were only taught Christianity and you were not taught to believe. Is that true?

        November 19, 2013 at 7:47 am |
        • Indyman1

          Solaafrica....you speak of humility, but show none. Being Catholic is not a prerequisite to being a believer in Christ. Knowing Christ knows no denomination.

          November 19, 2013 at 8:32 am |
        • solaafrica

          lndyman1.... You are right. It is the teaching and the doctrine that misleads. That why i hate churches that people shout out the name of Jesus as if He is deaf. Just a simple quite prayer is enough. And you see what the Pope has done?..... Just a simple kiss. Were it for the other churches...... it could be a series of prayers in form of performing miracles. First of all we are all sinners because we live in a contemporary world. What we do know is each others heart and what is in the mind. And when you are healed, it is not because a miracle performer performed the miracle, it is your faith that makes you be the miracle yourself. Even Jesus taught us prayer and what others are doing is to forestall what they hallucinate and make you think that it is a miracle. I have always wanted to see the miracle that people see but has never seen. The last time I went to see the miracle I became the miracle because i did not see any. Yeah. It was a miracle not to see a miracle. Those are the lines that I am talking about.
          Churches like the ones I do not want to mention, shout all their throats out. The word of God should be peaceful and enjoyable. It is not supposed to be a forceful task.
          Anyway, all this goes back to what the bible teaches and not what we think.
          Praises to Pope though. Even if it were you would you have done what the pope did? Probably not.
          Look at these verses: Romans 1:27, 1 Corinthians 7: 10.

          November 19, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  15. Helen L

    God bless you!

    November 19, 2013 at 6:54 am |
    • What?

      There is no god.

      November 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  16. Edwin Barcia

    I think the Pope is an extraordinary person. And not because he is Pope, but because he is a good and decent human being. The way he treated Riva, with compassion, and above all dignity is what we should all try to understand, and emulate. I am joyful that we have a Pope who is a great and wonderful human being. May he be given the time and the opportunity to show the world what he is capable of. I pray that he would be another Great Pope, maybe even the greatest if he can once and for all resolve the problems of the Church, particularly those that require justice for the victims of child abuse.

    November 19, 2013 at 5:19 am |
  17. Esilef

    Pope Awesome The First

    November 19, 2013 at 4:55 am |
  18. Eddie Nugroho

    I greatly love this pope. Thank you, God, for giving a good and kind-hearted person like this to head the church. Revolutionary, brave, but also kind-hearted.

    November 19, 2013 at 3:24 am |
  19. Renee

    My daughters and I also have neurofibromatosis.. Its a painful awful disease. What a beautiful moment this man had with the Pope. Maybe even brought some awareness to this horrid disease.

    November 19, 2013 at 2:29 am |
  20. Omer

    If all humans could show such compassion, what a world we would have.

    November 19, 2013 at 2:27 am |
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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.