Vinicio Riva will never forget the moment he met Pope Francis, and neither will the rest of us, as the moving image of the pontiff embracing Riva touched hearts and opened eyes around the world.
Though Riva has neurofibromatosis type 1, which presents as a disfiguring skin disorder, Francis opened his arms and embraced him tightly. Riva gave an exclusive interview to Italian magazine Panorama, where he described the loving moment.
Riva was struck by the Pope's open love for all people. "I'm not contagious, but he [the Pope] didn't know that," he said. "But he did it, period: He caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I felt only love."
No words were exchanged, just the healing comfort of touch. "I tried to speak to say something but I was unable to," said Riva in a translation provided by Time. “The emotion was too strong. It lasted a little longer than a minute but it felt as if it were eternity.”
Vinicio Riva is 53. He wasn't expected to live past age thirty, but he's surpassed those dire prediction and now lives with his sister Morena, age 46, who has a milder case of neurofibromatosis. He likes to volunteer his time to recycle and garden, and enjoys eating pizza with friends and watching Vicenza club soccer games.
However, he is still often stigmatized due to his appearance, even by his own father, who lives in the nursing home where he volunteers. His sister Morena told Panorama that their father never embraces him, feeling "embarrassed" by Riva's disorder.
But that didn't stop the Pope.