Pope Francis, a severely disfigured man and an embrace that went viral

Posted on: 10:53 am, November 7, 2013, by , updated on: 03:46pm, November 7, 2013

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  • Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, is the first non-European pope of the modern era, and the first from South America. Many of the early actions of his papacy have gained viral acclaim. (Photo: CNN)

  • Pope Francis caresses a man suffering from a rare disease on Wednesday, November 6, in St. Peter's Square. (Photo: Twitter / @Pontifex)

  • Pope Francis caresses a man suffering from a rare disease on Wednesday, November 6, in St. Peter's Square. (Photo: Twitter / @Pontifex)

  • Pope Francis caresses a man suffering from a rare disease on Wednesday, November 6, in St. Peter's Square. (Photo: Twitter / @Pontifex)

  • Pope Francis caresses a man suffering from a rare disease on Wednesday, November 6, in St. Peter's Square. (Photo: Twitter / @Pontifex)

(CNN) — It was the embrace that melted hearts worldwide.

Pope Francis, pausing for a moment to lay his hands on a man with a skin disease. The man gently burying his head in the pope’s chest, his many facial tumors visible.

His encounter with the ailing man occurred in Vatican City on Wednesday at the end of the general audience, which had about 50,000 attendees.

Images of the pope’s embrace in St. Peter’s Square went viral on social media.

“I’m an atheist, but the more I hear about Pope Francis, the more I like him,” Donna Hosie tweeted.

Some say Pope Francis is living up to the ideals of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, a pre-eminent figure who considered himself a servant to the poor and destitute.

Since taking over as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, the pope has highlighted the need to reach out to the poor and afflicted.

“Lord, teach us to step outside ourselves,” he tweeted in August. “Teach us to go out into the streets and manifest your love.”

A month later, he echoed the same sentiment.

“True charity requires courage: let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need,” he tweeted.

The pope has called for open interaction with people from all walks of life, especially the poor, weak and vulnerable.

And he is practicing what he preaches.

The man the pope comforted suffers from neurofibromatosis, according to the Catholic News Agency. The genetic disorder causes pain and thousands of tumors throughout the body. It leads to hearing and vision loss, heart and blood vessel complications, and severe disability due to nerve compression by tumors.

It was the latest in a series of memorable encounters for the pope.

Last month, a pint-sized papal pal joined him on stage — and refused to let go.

CNN’s Hada Messia contributed to this report