“I felt only love”: Vinicio Riva on Francis’ Kiss -UPDATED

Everyone remembers this gentleman, and this beautiful moment, one that has lingered in our awareness so well that weeks later, we are still reading, writing and talking about it, still processing it:

YouTube Preview Image

When these pictures burst upon the scene, Max Lindenman, in a thoughtful post, wondered (worried?) whether the man’s anonymity might tempt us to dismiss his human reality.

But I do wish I knew more about him — his name, his nationality, his employment history, how faith and doubt play out in his life, any detail that tends to mark him as an individual. Through no fault of his own, he comes off in its absence like a prop, a flat character in a story called How Francis Transformed the Papacy.

In the story, his purpose, his job, is to be merely pitiable — or worse. The Kindness Blog’s headline refers to him as “Horribly Disfigured Man”; to UCatholic, he’s “Severely Disfigured Man.” Vatican Insider’s copy is a little more delicate, bumping up his status to “man plagued with neurofibromatosis.” But the line following the photo — “Pope Francis’ humanity shone [sic] through once again as he kissed a man’s disfigured face” — gives the game away. And it’s the same old game. We’re meant to understand that nobody but a saint would touch the guy with a ten-foot pole.

Finally, we know his name, and it all becomes even more real.

Vinicio Riva, whose head and neck are covered with tumors due to a rare disease, told an Italian magazine that his disfigured appearance has led to a lifetime of living on the margins. [...]

Riva, who lives in Vicenza in northern Italy, said he suffers from neurofibromatosis Type 1, which causes painful tumors to grow throughout his body. His younger sisters and late mother also suffered from the rare disease, Riva told Panorama.

The first signs of the disease began when he was 15, Riva said, and since then, he has often felt ostracized because of his unusual appearance.

But the Pope showed no sign of discomfort as he approached, said Riva. Instead, the pontiff’s face broke into a calm smile.

“But what most astonished me is that he didn’t think twice on embracing me,” 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.”

Vinicio Riva has been marginalized for much of his life, because of his appearance; now he is celebrated and made known. In one of those great paradoxes of faith, the very malady that had pushed him to the edges of society was the thing that brought him into contact with the great, unnerving, liberating mystery that is love unnarrowed and unleashed, and all in the sight of the whole world.

Rather than instinctively looking away from Vinicio Riva; we now can’t take our eyes off of him, so fascinated are we by the revelation of love’s awe-full beauty, and the way it renders adorable what had previously seemed unlovable. Though we are afraid, we want it, too.

Pondering of all of this in the light of our broken, disfigured souls, we may literally tremble. I know I do. As physically unattractive as I am, it is my interior ugliness that often makes me feel repellent — to myself, to God, to the world — and it is the greater weight I drag as I wander the peripheries and wonder how much love I dare lay claim to.

And yet. . .here is hope, even for one as damaged and ghastly as I, in all my dark sins. This moment between Francis and Vinicio is just a small revelation of the love we are promised in the light of Christ. If this tiny apocalypse of pure love has us entranced and moved, what might the whole glory of it be were we to permit an unrestricted Christ-kiss to our souls?

We can’t even imagine it without becoming a little breathless, and yes, overwhelmed. It is promised to us. Dare we believe that with our whole hearts, and let it draw us into revelation?

Vinicio Riva is not contagious, but I really hope the love unleashed in that stark moment in Saint Peter’s Square becomes a kind of viral contagion — one that makes us so “sick with love” that we are (again, in divine paradox) cleansed, healed and made whole; slower to reject others, and faster to respect them; tempering our own harsh sell-assessments with a prudent, not indulgent, measure of mercy.

UPDATE Upclose and personal with Mr. Riva, here

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Mark G.


  • Michelle

    As physically unattractive as I am, it is my interior ugliness that often makes me feel repellent — to myself, to God, to the world — and it is the greater weight I drag as I wander the peripheries and wonder how much love I dare lay claim to.

    And yet. . .here is hope, even for one as damaged and ghastly as I, in all my dark sins.

    —-This makes me want to weep. My throat is tightening with tears that don’t quite dare come. (because I need to get dinner on the table, right?) Thank you for these words. It really is the great hope isn’t it? Every once in a while I get a glimpse that perhaps even Jesus himself will be more horrified by my harsh words and judgement of others than he will of the things that still these twenty years later have the power to make me wince and cringe and feel I have condemned myself to some kind of untouchable if only people knew what I said, what I agreed to claim as truth . . . once upon a time in a different world, as a different me. – - – I have to believe that Jesus sees those moments and can embrace me still – - – the thought that another mere human – - – even a Pope Francis could do this – - – well, that’s another story all together. —Thanks again for these thoughts. They capture well why the picture of Francis kissing Vinicio matters to us. Why it makes us ache like we’re walking on our knees with our mouths open praying for raindrops in a desert.

  • jenny

    Oh God, forgive me for being selfish….. forgive me.

  • Iota


    I kind of didn’t like the idea of Mr Riva becoming a sign of hope for love of sinners Not, mind you, because I don’t have sins. But because, unless Mr Riva did something morally awful, the ostracism he faced was the consequence of others’ sins, of collective NOT loving. Maybe with some ignorance thrown in, because when you don’t know if it’s contagious you back away instead of asking.

    I just can’t use that pure lack of love and turn it around as a story about how I will be loved despite my sins. If I sin, I am at fault for people turning away I may hope they won’t, by the mercy of God, but it’s like as difference between a guilty thief and a person merely accused of stealing. I am not worthy to compare to the falsely accused. If the man didn’t do anything awful, I’m not worthy of the comparison.

    I mean, should the fact someone just looks awful and is nevertheless embraced even be a thing? Isn’t that how it should always be?

    There, sorry to be a spoil-sport.

  • MeanLizzie

    It’s a sound point — he did nothing to earn his exclusion, I have done much. You’re also right that Riva’s looks and the pope’s embrace shouldn’t have mattered in a perfect world where everything is as it should be. But that’s also kind of the point. Nothing as it should be and hasn’t been since the fall — before the fall, there would be no disfigured face or disfigured soul, and no ignorance about giving a man a hug, either. In the end, it’s all rooted in the fall, in our brokenness. So we all still need to find hope and try to conform ourselves to its light…Riva is much more innocent than I am, but we’re still trapped in consquences of Eden.

  • Iota

    To clarify — I just profoundly dislike the idea of taking another person’s bodily disfigurement as a sign of my sin. Because the general truth that we are all living after the Fall is “impersonal”” in that it is true of everyone equally, illness is impersonal in the sense that it happens to you, not because of who you are. But sin is only mine to claim. I find it cheap, for myself, to want to use people poorer than me (in the same sense that a falsely accused is “poorer” than a rightly accused – his suffering is less “merited) to give me hope, unless they explicitly don’t mind. I screwed up and now foisting myself on another, because it helps me feel hopeful…

    Granted, that’s hopefully and probably not your point. It’s just a pet peeve of mine.

  • valleys of neptune

    The trouble I have, admittedly as an atheist, is that for all his personal love and kindliness that I have no reason to disbelieve, his views on the “issues” are very questionable. And he is as much Argentinian as his predecessors were Polish and German, which can often be problematic (as in his remarks on the Falkland Islands!) and then there are things like this.


  • Stefanie

    Elizabeth –thanks for all the links. Speaking of Paradise, in next Sunday’s Gospel for the feast of Christ the King, Jesus promises it to the criminal as they both are on their crosses. Therefore in RCIA tonight, we’ll be talking about Mr. Riva and what is means to be in Paradise with our Lord.
    BTW, I love that additional sentence from him, “Here I leave my pain.” What powerful words! let it be so with all who seek Him and acknowledge Him as our Majesty.

  • Victor

    (((The trouble I have, admittedly as an atheist, is that for all his personal love and kindliness that I have no reason to disbelieve, his views on the “issues” are very questionable.)))

    Hey valleys of Neptune! Personally speaking “ME”, “ME” and “ME” just love “IT” when true atheist finally believe that we alien gods are all that truly matters in this twenty first century. If only all pup pets, “I” mean human animals, no, no, human being body cells could learn that….

    “Trans-humanism” are the true gods of this universe. If only Victor could accept that our 96% spiritual body cells are for real and just because Victor’s so called four per cent age cells of his “Father”, “Mother”, “Son” and “Holy Spirit” are but a fig man, “I” mean a figment of some of his brain cells and we’re not simply cheesee maggots, “I” mean, parasite end I’M, “I” mean listen valleys we gods agree that Victor’s so called Holiness appears to have renounced papal infallibility and………


    I hear YA Anchoress! Victor you’ve got to stop going to see those silly S.F. movies now. :(
    Really? :)
    God Bless Peace