The disfigured man who Pope Francis kissed in a touching moment caught on camera earlier this month said the Pope didn’t hesitate to embrace him when the two met in St. Peter’s Square.
Vinicio Riva, 53, gave an exclusive interview to the Italian magazine Panorama, in which he described kissing the Pope’s hand while he caressed his head and wounds. Pope Francis pulled Riva towards him, hugged him tightly and kissed his face.
“I tried to speak to say something but I was unable to,” Riva, who lives near the Vicenza province, said according to a TIME translation of the interview. “The emotion was too strong. It lasted a little longer than a minute but it felt as if it were eternity.”
Riva revealed that his disfigured skin is a symptom of von Recklinghausen’s disease, also known as neurofibromatosis type 1. The genetic disease affects cell growth of neural tissues that can result in the lesions that mark most of Riva’s body, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Riva’s 68-year-old aunt, Caterina, told Panorama her nephew was placed with the sick at St. Peter’s Square because of his appearance, but that his condition is not serious.
His appearance hasn’t prevented Riva from volunteering three hours with recycling and gardening, eating pizza with friends and watching Vicenza club soccer games. The shy, soft-spoken Italian lives with his 46-year-old sister who suffers from a more mild case of the same illness.
Riva said he often wakes up in the morning with a shirt full of blood, but that his moment with the Pope changed him.
“He touched my face and when he was doing it, I only felt love,” Riva said.