Many say the new pope, who replaced former pope Benedict XVI after his resignation in February 2013, is a pope of the people and truly manifests Christian ideology of treating people with equality, taking to the streets to help the poor, and reaching out to stigmatized members of society. The Washington Post called his embrace of the neurofibromatosis victim as “the image worth a thousand words.”
Neurofibromatosis is a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors — usually benign — to grow from the ends of nerves, and can cause severe disfiguration. Sometimes, the tumors can become cancerous, according to the National Institutes of Health. There are three types of neurofibromatosis: Type 1 causes skin changes, deformed bones, and begins in childhood. Meanwhile, type 2 can lead to hearing loss and poor balance. The last type, called Schwannomatosis, is the most severe and also the rarest, causing intense pain. There is no cure for neurofibromatosis, and it is a hereditary disease, and not contagious. Though surgery can sometimes be used to remove tumors, treatment for the disorder is quite limited. It can be both a physically and emotionally devastating disease.
The most famous person assumed to have neurofibromatosis was Joseph Carey Merrick, a disfigured man who lived until age 27 in the late 1800s. He gained fame for his disorder when he was hired by a freak show, where he was publicized as the "Elephant Man." However, it was later assumed that he actually had a severe form of Proteus syndrome and not neurofibromatosis. Merrick was exhibited in freak shows throughout England, abandoned by his managers and ostracized from society before being taken in by a surgeon at London hospital, where he lived his final years of life in relative peace and safety.
"A lot of [neurofibromatosis patients] don't want to go outside because they have tumors all over their bodies," Dr. Gary Goldenberg, assistant professor of dermatology and pathology at Mount Sinai, told the NY Daily News. "These patients suffer quite a bit." Pope Francis had also embraced and blessed another man in front of his 50,000-wide audience, whose skin condition is unknown.
“Like St. Francis of Assisi, who embraced a leper, Pope Francis kisses a man plagued with a terrible skin condition,” Jesuit priest James Martin tweeted.