(Photo: Reuters/Giampiero Sposito)
Vinicio Riva, the disfigured man being hugged by Pope Francis in the recently-viral photo, has spoken about his experience with the Pontiff, saying when the Catholic leader hugged him he felt "only love."
"I tried to speak, to tell him something, but I couldn't: The emotion was too strong. It all lasted not more than a minute, but it seemed an eternity," Riva, who lives in the Vicenza region of Northern Italy, told the Italian magazine Panorama in a recent interview.
"But what most astonished me is that he didn't think twice on embracing me," Riva continued. "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."
53-year-old Riva, who suffers from neurofibromatosis Type 1, a rare disease that causes painful tumors to grow throughout his body, including on his head and neck, attended Pope Francis' mass on Nov. 6 at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in Italy. He says he decided to attend the mass with a friend after the two traveled to Lourdes, a renowned spot for Catholics in France where the water is said to cure physical ailments.
A photo of Pope Francis embracing Riva, his neck and head covered in tumors, then went viral. The photo shows Riva burying his face in the pope's chest as the pope gently embraces him, caressing the back of his head. The mass was attended by about 50,000 people.
After the photo began to circulate on social media, commenters voiced their admiration for the pope and his willingness to embrace those with physical deformations. "I'm an atheist, but the more I hear about Pope Francis, the more I like him," one viewer, Donna Hosie, tweeted.
"I'm not religious at all or any form but Pope Francis is doing some great things for the poor and less fortunate," tweeted another user. While still another commenter added: "I freaking love this Pope. He is a phenomenal picture of Christ. Thank you @Pontifex!"
Since he began his position as Pontiff earlier this year, Francis has been heralded by many as being a special representative to the poor and meek in society. He has been photographed washing the feet of drug addicts, and has forgone many of the luxurious aspects of being pope for modest options, including a low-priced car and apartment.