Photos of Pope Embracing Disfigured Man Go Viral

Pope Francis embraces man afflicted with neurofibromatosis in viral photo
Pope Francis hugs a man with neurofibromatosis in Saint Peter's Square at the end of his General Audience in Vatican City, November 6, 2013.
Claudio Peri/EPA/Landov

updated 11/07/2013 AT 09:30 PM EST

originally published 11/07/2013 AT 11:00 AM EST

It's the photo that has even atheists professing admiration for Pope Francis.

At the end of his General Audience in Vatican City on Wednesday (which had about 50,000 attendees), someone snapped a picture of Francis embracing a man afflicted with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes pain and the formation of thousands of tumors throughout the body.

In the photos, the unnamed man buries his head in Francis's robes as the Pope puts his hand on his head, an instantly iconic image that went viral almost immediately, disseminated across virtually every social media platform.

"True charity requires courage," Francis Tweeted in September. "Let us over come the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need."



Neurofibromatosis can lead to hearing and vision loss, heart and blood vessel complications, and severe disability when the tumors begin to compress nerves. Historically, it was associated with the "Elephant Man," Joseph Merrick, though geneticists now believe Merrick suffered from a different disease.

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