The disfigured man whose meeting with Pope Francis made headlines all over the world has finally spoken out about the experience – and said the moment left him speechless.
Vinicio Riva, 53, suffers from neurofibromatosis Type 1, a rare genetic disorder which results in painful tumours on his face and body.
Speaking for the first time to the Italian magazine Panorama, Mr Riva said 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 interview with Panorama comes as Pope Francis’ popularity has never been higher. A YouGov poll released yesterday suggested that, since the Argentinian had taken on the highest office in the Catholic Church in March this year, he has made a sustained and positive public impression.
The survey found that only 3 per cent of people thought he had done a bad job since being made Pope, compared to the 11 per cent who though he would do a bad job when he was installed.
While 36 per cent of people said they had a negative opinion of the church before Pope Francis and still do, 17 per cent said he had made them think more positively about Catholocism.