Pope Francis is seen embracing a severely disfigured man in this viral photo

By Alex Heigl
Updated November 07, 2013 11:00 AM
Claudio Peri/EPA/Landov

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.