VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis met with a gay friend and his partner while visiting Washington, the Vatican said Friday, confirming a highly symbolic encounter which occurred a day before the pontiff met prominent gay marriage opponent Kim Davis.
CNN, which first reported the meeting, broadcast a video of the encounter showing the pope and his old friend Yayo Grassi sharing a hug at the Vatican embassy in the US capital.
It was a gesture typical of the affectionate, tactile pontiff but also one loaded with symbolism in the run-up to a Vatican meeting of bishops which will review the Church’s approach to homosexuality and other divisive family-related issues, over the course of three weeks from Sunday.
In a statement, the Vatican’s spokesman said the meeting had been a personal one.
“Mr Yayo Grassi, a former Argentine student of Pope Francis, who had already met other times in the past with the Pope, asked to present his mother and several friends to the Pope during the Pope’s stay in Washington,” Father Federico Lombardi said.
“As noted in the past, the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue.”
Grassi brought his partner Iwan and several friends to the brief session, he told CNN, adding that the pope arranged the meeting weeks before his six-day visit to the United States at the end of September.
“Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug,” Grassi told the broadcaster.
‘Who am I to judge?’
News emerged this week that the pope had also met privately with Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was briefly jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Acting in the name of religion, Davis was defying what is now the law of the land, since same sex marriage became legal following a historic Supreme Court ruling in June.
The Vatican said in a statement earlier on Friday that the meeting with Davis should not be interpreted as support for her stance over what it termed a complex issue.
Grassi said the pope used to teach him literature and psychology in high school in Argentina in the 1960s.
He said the pope had long known he was gay but never condemned his sexual orientation or his same sex relationship.
“He has never been judgemental,” Grassi said. “He has never said anything negative.”
Pope Francis has won praise for shifting the focus of the Catholic church’s approach to homosexuality away from condemnation to a more understanding approach encapsulated by a famous 2013 remark in which he said of gays: “Who am I to judge them?”
He remains opposed to the legalization of gay marriage however and while the tone has changed at the top of the Church, it is far from certain that the upcoming synod will produce any concrete steps to make life easier for gay believers.