VATICAN CITY — It was the embrace that melted hearts worldwide.
Pope Francis, pausing for a moment to pray and lay his hands on a man with a disfiguring disease. The man gently burying his head in the Pope’s chest, his many facial tumors visible.
His encounter with the ailing man occurred in Vatican City on Wednesday at the end of the general audience, which had about 50,000 attendees.
Images of the Pope’s embrace in St. Peter’s Square went viral on social media.
“I’m an atheist, but the more I hear about Pope Francis, the more I like him,” Donna Hosie tweeted.
Some say Pope Francis is living up to the ideals of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, a preeminent figure who considered himself a servant to the poor and destitute.
Since taking over as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, the Pope has highlighted the need to reach out to the poor and afflicted.
“Lord, teach us to step outside ourselves,” he tweeted in August. “Teach us to go out into the streets and manifest your love.”
A month later, he echoed the same sentiment.
“True charity requires courage: let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need,” he tweeted.
The Pope has called for open interaction with people from all walks of life, especially the poor, weak and vulnerable.
And he is practicing what he preaches.
The man the Pope comforted suffers from neurofibromatosis, according to the Catholic News Agency. The genetic disorder causes pain and thousands of tumors throughout the body. It leads to hearing and vision loss, heart and blood vessel complications, and severe disability from nerve compression by tumors.
The disease is associated with Joseph Merrick, known as The Elephant Man, who became a famous figure in London society and the subject of a play and film. But in the 1980s, a study by Canadian geneticists found that Merrick instead suffered from Proteus syndrome.
The event Wednesday marked the latest in a series of memorable encounters for the Pope.
Last month, a pint-sized papal pal joined him on stage – and refused to let go.
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