It was just a brief moment. Friends and family took Vinicio Riva, 53, to St. Peter’s Square to see the Pope. Vinicio — from Vincenza, Italy — suffers from the genetic disease neurofibromatosis. His condition has left him covered with growths. Our brother Vinicio is a devout Catholic. I must admit that his faith puts mine to shame for how many times I have despaired while going through some minor trifle of pain not even comparable to what our good brother Vinicio is going through.
Years ago when I was a lot younger there was a song on the radio. The singer and author, Gilberto Gil, wrote the song on Ash Wednesday as he departed his beloved Brazil to be exiled in the UK. For those of us who lived through the turbulent 70’s in Latin America that song was a bittersweet reminder that even our happiest music and art were connected to our conflictive, terrible social and political condition. That song was called in Portuguese Aquele Abraço. It would take hours to translate all that became part of that expression over the years. It means “that hug,” or “that embrace” but there is a lot more meaning to it, a lot of longing and melancholy, a lot of pain, and a lot of happiness all wrapped together in two words forever more.
Those were my thoughts when I saw Francis embrace Vinicio, deformed Vinicio, our brother who bears the marks of a horrible disease. I saw Pope Francis embrace him and linger on, comforting the man who later confessed his heart “almost busted out of his chest” in a surge of indescribable emotion. That hug, I thought.
I remember also the story of the Père Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney who was allowed to see his soul and could not eat for several days after that, so bad was the impression that his precious saintly soul produced in him. So I went back to the song and I thought of Francis embracing Vinicio was a glorious metaphor that only Francis could deliver. Our souls are wounded by so many things! Avarice, lack of love, indifference, modernism, idolatry, selfishness, egotism, name any kind of wart, we have them all in wild profusion. If Père Vianney found his own soul disgusting just imagine what yours or mine may look like! I know how bad: much worse than sweet Vinicio’s face and not as white as Francis’ cassock. For we are not only filled with warts and deformities, we love them too and that is the terrible inheritance of original sin.
And yet, that hug, those arms stretched like the Redeemer over Guanabara Bay, those arms we wounded on the Cross want to embrace us. Was it mere chance that the song was penned on Ash Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro under the gaze of Jesus watching from Corcovado? I don’t think so. For that Ash Wednesday was — like all Ash Wednesdays — a reminder of what sin has made of us and what redemption from the exile of sin is all about.
A Latin-American Pope embraces a wounded man in St. Peter’s Square. In that embrace Christ hugged every soul for our ugliness is no match for His love.
Published 21 November 2013.