The disfigured man whose full-body tumours were lovingly kissed by the Pope has told the moving story of his life for the first time.

Vinicio Riva, from Vicenza in northern Italy, is covered from head-to-toe by the growths, a symptom of his genetic disease neorofibramatosis.

Earlier this month the 53-year-old's picture shot round the world, when he was warmly embraced by Pope Francis at one of the pontiff's weekly audiences.

Now, in an exclusive interview with MailOnline, the brave man has described the encounter, saying that being caressed by Francis made his heart beat so fast he thought he 'would die'.

The pontiff's hug was 'like paradise', he said. 'He didn't even think about whether or not to hug me. 

'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. '

Mr Riva recollected: 'He came down from the altar to see the sick people. He embraced me without saying a word. I felt as though my heart was leaving my body.

'He was completely silent but sometimes you can say more when you say nothing.'  

'First, I kissed his hand while with the other hand he caressed my head and wounds. Then he drew me to him in a strong embrace, kissing my face.

'My head was against his chest his arms were wrapped around me. It lasted just over a minute, but to me it seemed like an eternity.'

He was accompanied to the Vatican by his aunt, Caterina Lotto, 68. Afterwards he felt so emotional and his heart was beating so hard he turned to her and said: 'This is going to kill me .'

Mr Riva lives with his sister Morena, 46, in the council house they share outside Vicenza.

He has endured numerous operations on his heart, throat and eyes, and often gets short of breath as a result of his condition.

Mr Riva suffers from open wounds on his legs that bleed onto his clothes and always wakes wearing a T-shirt covered in blood.

His sister Morena also suffers from the disease, although from a far milder form. Their mother Rosalia was the genetic carrier that passed on the disease but she did not develop any symptoms until she had children. 

Until the age of 15, Mr Riva was an unblemished, self-assured adolescent. But then the growths appeared all over his body, inch by painful inch.

Now his entire face and head are covered in the boils. Only his left cheek, which is warped, is free of the painful growths. 

During an operation on his heart the doctors had to enter through the armpit to avoid the tumours which cover his torso.

His feet are deformed and devastated by the sores, which makes walking difficult. He rides to work and around the village by bike but visited the Vatican by wheelchair because of the long waiting time on foot.  

The dermatology patient's mother, Rosaria, eventually died of the condition, aged 81, and Mr Riva himself was only expected to live until the age of 30.

His father, 77, a former builder, who still lives in the retirement home where Mr Riva now works, seems to have been a somewhat authoritarian figure.

Mr Riva showed little affection to his son after he got sick and pulled him out of school aged 15 to come and work on the building sites with him. The dust made the boy's sores itch terribly.

Later the son went to work, painting in a ceramics factory and, in a specially assisted place for disabled people, assembling parts such as car batteries.

When he is not working Mr Riva rides his bikes around the village. He is also a keen football fan and often goes to football matches or out for pizza with former classmates and friends.

He has not had a girlfriend since he was a young man after having his heart broken.

But despite the heartache Mr Riva enjoys reading romance novels. And he has also been known to bring flowers to the nurses at the clinics where he needs once or twice a week treatment.

He says he would like to meet a person who suffers from the same condition 'out of interest' but especially a woman, for a possible relationship.

The big-hearted volunteer has often been shunned in the street as an 'Elephant Man', with mothers crossing the street to avoid him. Surprisingly, the women can be worse than the men, he said.

On one particularly painful occasion he was forced to leave his seat on the bus. He said: 'I got on the bus and wanted to sit next to the driver.

'But one man said that I couldn't sit there. He said he didn't want to look at me. No one on the bus defended me. I felt terrible.'

The family haven't been on holiday for years – for one thing because the wounds on Mr Riva's desk bleed so that the sheets need changing every day.

'They don't say directly but they say that you have to leave,' Aunt Caterina said.  

'People can be OK but the "kids" [Vinicio and Morena] don't go out unless I go along too,' aunt Caterina said: 'They feel more protected when I am there. I've know them since they were born.'

The brother and sister exist on a mere 250 euros a month each from their disabled benefits and 150 euros each from their volunteer jobs.

There is not a lot of money to spare, but their aunt Caterina helps out with her by giving them part of her pension.

Fortunately, in the village the community have become accustomed to him.

He said: 'Those who I have known for a long time are kind; the others are horrible.'

The severely sick man is taken to Lourdes, a popular place of pilgrimage in France, every year by Catholic group Unitalsi but it was the first time they had thought to take him to St Peter's.

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