The shockingly disfigured man, whose full-body tumours were lovingly kissed by the Pope, has been revealed as a 53-year-old Italian suffering from a rare genetic disease. Vinicio Riva’s entire body has been ravaged by the growths, a symptom of neorofibramatosis, which is not contagious.
Earlier this month his picture shot round the world, when he was emotionally embraced by Pope Francis, at one of the pontiff’s weekly audiences in Rome.
The severely disabled man, who is shunned in the street, and has induced horror even in his doctors, has for the first time described the encounter, saying that being caressed by Francis was like ‘being in Paradise’.
He told Italian news magazine Panorama he was left speechless when Pope did not hesitate to touch him.
He said: ‘His hands were so soft. And his smile was so clear and open. But the thing that struck me most is that there has not been thinking about whether or not to hug me. I'm not contagious, but he did not know. But he just did it: he caressed me all over my face, and as he did I felt only love.
He recollected the meeting that occured two weeks ago: 'First I kissed his hand while he, with the other hand, caressed my head and wounds. Then he drew me to him in a strong embrace, kissing my face.
'My head was against his chest his arms were wrapped around me. It lasted just over a minute, but to me it seemed like an eternity.'
Mr Riva was accompanied to the Vatican's St Peter's square by his aunt, Caterina and his younger sister Morena, who also suffers from a lesser form of the disease.
The meeting with Francis marked a new beginning for him he said: ‘Later I turned to my aunt and told her: "Here I leave my pain."
Mr Riva first needed medical attention at the age of two for the genetic condition, and has since endured numerous operations on his heart, throat and eyes.
But it was the growths, that first appeared at the age of 15, that destroyed his appearance.
Now his entire face and head are covered in growths, Panorama reported. Only his left cheek, warped as if burnt in a fire is free of the painful growths. His feet are deformed and devastated by the sores, which makes walking difficult.
He lives with his sister in the council house they share in a suburb of Vicenza, working part-time as handyman in a retirement home.
Their mother was afflicted by the same condition and eventually died of it. Mr Riva himself was only expected to live until the age of 30.
The severely sick man has been reviled in the street as an ‘Elephant Man’, with mothers crossing the street to avoid him, but those in his community have now come to love him.
He said: 'Those who I have known for a long time are kind; the others are horrible.’
He is taken to Lourdes, a popular place of pilgrimage in France, every year by Catholic group Unitalsi, but it was the first time they had thought to take him to St Peter’s.
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