‘To the peripheries’

The man suffering from neurofibromatosis who was embraced by Pope Francis at a recent general audience has been identified in a story by the Daily Mail Online as Vinicio Riva.

A 53-year-old from northern Italy, Riva is an avid soccer fan, works at the same retirement home where his father now lives and is known to bring flowers to his nurses.

In an exclusive interview, Riva revealed that receiving such a loving embrace from the Pope was “like paradise.”

He has has faced discrimination from strangers due to his appearance since his teen years when the disease first manifested itself, but said that the Pope didn’t hesitate to embrace him in St. Peter’s Square that day.

“I’m not contagious, but he didn’t know that. But he just did it: he caressed me all over my face, and as he did I felt only love.”

The picture captured the world’s attention and drew one of the most positive responses to a story I’ve seen on our website.

On CNA’s initial story about Riva, it was almost as if a mini-support group formed in the comment boxes of that short article.

“On thing that stands out in everyone [with neurofibromatosis] I know is the extraordinary kindness and unselfishness that they exhibit to others. The tumors, and disabilities seem to come with an amazing gift as well. To me, kindness is also a symptom,” one reader wrote.

Another reader, whose son suffered from the disease and died in 2011 said, “The Pope by his action is embracing all the families of all those suffering with this condition. On behalf of those families I thank him for his blessing.”

“God bless Pope Francis for reaching out and touching the ‘lepers’ of the world. We have a cure for real leprosy today; there is currently no cure for neurofibromatosis.”

One theme that the Holy Father has devoted much attention to during his pontificate is bringing the Gospel to those in “the peripheries of society.”

The peripheries, he explained during his Oct. 4 visit to Assisi, are the places which “risk being on the margins” but they are also “people, human realities who are marginalized, despised. They are people who maybe are physically located near the ‘center,’ but spiritually are far away.”

Where are the peripheries in our own communities? Where are they in our parishes? Where are they in our families?

Let’s follow our Holy Father’s example and reach out to them with a loving embrace that is “like paradise.”