Written by 1:51 pm In the News

Disfigured man hugged by pope dies

Vinicio Riva, an Italian man who suffered from a rare condition and whose moving encounter with Pope Francis after a general audience at the Vatican in 2013 was seen around the world, died in a hospital in Vicenza, Italy, on Jan. 10 at age 58.

A picture of the tender encounter between Riva — who suffered from neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic disorder that can result in skin lesions — and the pope in 2013 represented one of the most emotional and impactful moments of Francis’ pontificate.

The moving scene was captured after the general audience on Nov. 6, 2013, the year Pope Francis was elected successor of St. Peter.

The pontiff embraced Riva while greeting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in a vivid gesture of love for people suffering from medical conditions. Francis stopped for several minutes to take Riva into his arms. Moments later, he took him by the face and gave him a blessing.

Mr Riva told the Italian magazine Panorama that the moment captured by photographers in St Peter’s Square on 6 November “all lasted not more than a minute, but it seemed an eternity”, and that it was “like being in Paradise”.

Mr Riva told the magazine he had spent a lifetime living on the margins of society in Vicenza, northern Italy, where his younger sisters and late mother also suffered from the same rare disease.

In the past he has made a number of visits to Lourdes, a Catholic shrine in France which is the site of thousands of religious pilgrimages every year, until a travelling companion this year suggested he go to Rome.

Mr Riva spoke of his shock when, after meeting Pope Francis and kissing his hand, the Pontiff then pulled the 53-year-old towards him.

“What most astonished me is that he didn’t think twice on embracing me,” Mr 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.

“I tried to speak, to tell him something, but I couldn’t: The emotion was too strong.”

Afterwards, Mr Riva turned to his aunt who accompanied him to the Vatican and said: “Here I leave my pain.”

The Holy Father’s unexpected gesture completely changed Riva’s life and helped him better cope with the pain caused by the lesions he had throughout his body.

After the pope’s embrace, Riva said he had put aside “all the sorrows.”

(Vatican Media)

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