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PHOTOS: These LGBT Catholics Went to Rome, Landed VIP Seats for Pope

PHOTOS: These LGBT Catholics Went to Rome, Landed VIP Seats for Pope

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Some 50 LGBT Catholic pilgrims traveled to Florence, Assisi, and Rome, where they were given VIP seats for a papal audience. Take a look at photos from their journey.

A letter that on first read seemed to give "a polite dismissal" to some 50 LGBT Catholic travelers turned out to offer a "place of distinction," says New Ways Ministry executive director Francis DeBernardo. That place of distinction: VIP seats located near Pope Francis for the pontiff's weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on Ash Wednesday.

It was a first for an LGBT group, and it generated headlines worldwide. In addition to visiting Rome and landing VIP seats for the pontiff, the New Ways group traveled to Florence and Assisi on their February trip. DeBernardo shared some photos from the journey with The Advocate on the following pages.

Lgbt-catholics01_0Pilgrims with New Ways Ministry, an LGBT Catholic organization, await the arrival of Pope Francis.

Lgbt-catholics02_0Pope Francis, a pontiff whose "'mixed bag' approach to LGBT issues" DeBernardo examines in a blog post reflecting on the New Ways group's travels. "Pope Francis has taken some very important steps in the right direction, but the church hierarchy still needs to take many more steps in order to achieve justice and equality for LGBT people," he writes. "It must speak out against repressive laws around the globe against LGBT people. It must condemn violence directed towards them. It must stop firing LGBT church workers and volunteers. It must speak out for equal treatment before the law."

Lgbt-catholics03_0Recorded for posterity, a GPS map displaying the New Ways pilgrims' locations in St. Peter's Square -- where they were not only in the papal audience but given VIP seating.

Lgbt-catholics05_0Sister Jeannine Gramick, cofounder of New Ways and pilgrimage leader, at the papal audience. Gramick wrote a letter seeking a meeting with the pope for the LGBT pilgrims. DeBernardo says the response she received, saying seats were reserved for them at the weekly general papal audience seemed at first to be "a polite dismissal." But it turned out that the seats in question were VIP seating near the pontiff himself -- a "place of distinction."

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The pope has walked a fine line on LGBT issues. Lauded for his "Who am I to judge?" remark (about gay priests) and other seeming overtures on LGBT issues (such as a private meeting with a transgender man and his fiancee), the pope has also been criticized for a lack of policy changes (which most observers grant are unlikely) and critical statements about same-sex marriage and nontraditional families.

Lgbt-catholics07_0Sister Jeannine Gramick in the Pantheon, a temple dedicated to the gods of ancient Rome.

Lgbt-catholics08_0The New Ways travelers in front of Michelangelo's David.

Lgbt-catholics09_0Travelers at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Lgbt-catholics04_0Pope Francis has attracted a lot of attention from the public and particularly LGBT people (call it "the Francis effect") and from the media.

Lgbt-catholics10_0The New Ways pilgrims are the first LGBT group given VIP seats for a papal audience. Though you wouldn't know that from the Vatican's list of attendees, which dubbed the New Ways folks a "group of lay people" without identifying them as coming with an LGBT organization. In DeBernardo's blog post, he points to the somewhat under-the-radar VIP honors as indicative of Pope Francis's "mixed bag" approach to LGBT issues.

"Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, our presence was not acknowledged at all," he writes. "While our LGBT status was not recognized publicly, this LGBT group was not shunned. Indeed, it was given a place of honor. Still, I think that this incident of not being named is in a way symbolic of the way that Pope Francis is approaching LGBT issues. He is willing to go to a certain point, but he is not yet willing to go all the way. For some people that approach is cowardly. For others, it might seem political. I tend to view it as a step forward."

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