19 November 2013, The Tablet

Francis' embrace ‘felt like Paradise’, says man disfigured by disease

A severely disabled man whose body is covered in painful tumours, has told how the now-famous moment he was embraced by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square felt “like being in Paradise”.

Images of the moment at the end of a General Audience earlier this month when Pope Francis held Vinicio Riva spread across the world.

“First, I kissed his hand while with the other hand he caressed my head and wounds. Then he drew me to him in a strong embrace, kissing my face,” Mr Riva, 53, told the Mail Online.

“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,” he added.

Mr Riva, who suffers from the genetic disease neurofibromatosis and has suffered with the growths since he was 15, was brought to the Vatican in a wheelchair because sores on his feet make walking painful for him.

He told the website he had been shunned by members of the public and could not go on holiday because his wounds bleed so much that his bed sheets need to be changed every day.

“Those who I have known for a long time are kind; the others are horrible,” he said.

Mr Riva is awaiting a fifth operation to remove a tumour above his left eye which restricts his vision. Mr Riva said that a tumour, once cut off, grows back in about a year.

He lives with his sister, Morena, who suffers from a milder form of the disease that killed their mother at 81. The pair live in a council flat in Vicenza in northern Italy and cared for by their aunt, Caterina Lotto, who said: “I would give them my soul if I could.”

Brother and sister survive on €250 a month (£210) in benefits and €150 (£125) each from their volunteer jobs, as well as some money from Mrs Lotto’s pension.

Because the disability is not recognised as a disease they have to pay for their medicine, and their twice-weekly visits from a local nurse are to end in January because of cuts to the Italian health budget.

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