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Man with disfigured face whose embrace with Pope Francis touched the world 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.

The Holy Father’s unexpected gesture completely changed Riva’s life, he later said, 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.”

‘I’m not contagious but he didn’t know it’

In an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama, Riva said that when he met Pope Francis the pontiff first kissed his hand “while he caressed my head and my lesions with the other.”

“Then he drew close to me and hugged me tightly; he gave me a kiss on the face. My head was against his chest and his arms welcomed me. He hugged me tight, tight.”

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“I tried to speak, say anything, but I couldn’t: The emotion was very strong. It was just over a minute, but it seemed like an eternity to me. Then I turned to see my aunt and told her: Here I leave the sorrows, the sorrows are left right here,” he said.

Riva added on that occasion that Pope Francis’ hands “were soft, gentle, and so beautiful.”

Later he recalled the emotional hug with the pope: “He didn’t think about whether to hug me or not. I’m not contagious but he didn’t know it. He did it and that’s it: He caressed all my face and while he did it I only felt love.”

With a voice almost in a whisper due to an operation that was performed on his throat, Riva recalled with emotion the encounter that day and said that Pope Francis’ gesture helped him fight against von Recklinghausen’s disease, also known as neurofibromatosis type 1.

Neurofibromatosis causes great pain and can result in impaired vision, learning impairment, and even cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Treatment of the condition is very complicated.

People with this disease — which is genetic and not contagious — often face discrimination because of their appearance.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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