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