One day before he met antigay Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, Pope Francis had a private meeting at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. with a gay man and his partner, who the pontiff knew from Argentina, CNN reports.
Yayo Grassi, who has been with his partner, Iwan, for nearly 20 years, told CNN that Pope Francis personally arranged the meeting, and welcomed both men warmly with hugs at the Vatican Embassy in D.C. September 23.
"Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug," Grassi, a caterer who lives in D.C., told CNN.
Grassi has long maintained a correspondence with Pope Francis, who originally served as Grassi's high school literature and psychology teacher when he was Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, according to National Geographic.
After Bergoglio came out against Argentina's marriage equality efforts in 2010, Grassi struck up an email correspondence with the future pope, expressing his disappointment that his former mentor was taking a stance so personally hurtful to Grassi.
While American LGBT Catholics were disappointed that Pope Francis declined repeated invites to meet with the disenfranchised faithful, the news that the pope did hold an audience with a same-sex couple comes as a surprise, especially in the wake of outrage following Davis's claims that she had a private audience with the pope, where he affirmed her ongoing religious-based refusal to issue marriage licenses.
The Vatican this morning disputed Davis and her attorney's claims that she had a private audience with the pope, saying instead that she was among dozens of people who greeted Pope Francis in a receiving line as he departed Washington.
"The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi in a statement. "The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature [Vatican embassy] was with one of his former students and his family."
"That was me," Grassi told CNN.
Grassi's partner posted video of the couple's papal encounter on Facebook; watch that below.
[iframe https://graphics8.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000003953358&playerType=embed height=423 width=633]
New Ways Ministry, a group advocating for LGBT equality within the church, issued a statement praising the pope for meeting with the couple but said he needs to do more.
"While I am glad to hear the story of the Yayo Grassi meeting, I still wish that Pope Francis would be more forthcoming about his personal experiences and relationships with LGBT people," said executive director Francis DeBernardo. "That kind of openness would set a great example for bishops and other church leaders who cringe at the thought of any association with LGBT people or issues.
"And while it is wonderful to hear of Pope Francis' personal admiration for this gay couple, it would be much more effective if he would set up formal dialogues with LGBT Catholics to discuss church teaching, policy, and pastoral practice. As I stated two days ago, the time for vagueness, ambiguity, and secret meetings is over."
The Vatican also should have "responded more quickly and efficiently" to reports of the pope's meeting with Kim Davis, DeBernardo said, as whenever the pontiff makes a progressive-sounding comment, church officials have swiftly countered that interpretation.
"Moreover, had the Vatican been more forthcoming about the context of the Grassi meeting, they would have immediately gained much respect and admiration from the LGBT community," he continued.
"I hope that both Pope Francis and the Vatican have learned some lessons from these experiences about communication and symbolism," DeBernardo concluded. "The main lesson that I hope they take away from these incidents is that many people are confused as to where Pope Francis stands on LGBT issues If Pope Francis would clarify where he stands on some of the vague messages he has made with regard to LGBT issues, this whole media storm could have been avoided."