The news that Pope Francis’ “only real audience’ (in the words of a Vatican press statement) in his United States visit was with a gay man and his partner has re-awakened the hopes of many in the Catholic LGBT community that the pontiff has not aligned himself with conservative political forces, but that he is still open to showing affirmation to the LGBT people.
While this news is positive, one of the people at the center of this story, Yayo Grassi, the pope’s gay ex-student, cautioned against reading too much into this encounter.
Grassi told The New York Times that his meeting with the pope was a personal encounter, not a political one:
“I don’t think he was trying to say anything in particular. He was just meeting with his ex-student and a very close friend of his.”
Similarly, Jesuit Father James Martin, noted author and Catholic commentator, told The Huffington Post that the pope’s meeting with Grassi, while significant, should not be seen as acceptance of same-gender relationships:
“Of course it does not betoken any sort of papal approval of same-sex marriage. But if the story is accurate, I’m glad to hear that the Pope keeps in touch with old friends, gay or straight.”
In the same article, Father Thomas Rosica, Vatican spokesperson highlighted the pastoral aspect of the visit:
“As noted in the past, the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue.”
More details and analyses have emerged which offer some insights into why the Vatican was slow to responding to this brouhaha.
An Associated Press news story explained the difference between an “audience” and a “meeting” in Vatican-speak:
“An audience differs from a meeting in that it is a planned, somewhat formal affair. Popes have audiences with heads of state. They have meetings and greeting sessions with benefactors or Catholic VIPs. So the fact that Lombardi described Grassi’s encounter as the only ‘real audience’ in Washington made clear that Francis wanted to emphasize that encounter over Davis’ “brief meeting” with several dozen other people invited to the embassy at the same time.”
The same news story offered some background as to how the Vatican’s clarification on the Davis meeting came about:
“Initially the Vatican only reluctantly confirmed the meeting but offered no comment.
“On Friday, Lombardi met with Francis and issued a fuller statement to ‘contribute to an objective understanding of what transpired.’ Francis has made clear he dislikes being used for political ends, and Lombardi’s statement appeared intended to make clear that the encounter should in no way be exploited.”
A New York Times article reported the response of Jesuit Father James Martin, who earlier this week had cautioned that the Kim Davis meeting was not an indication of the pope’s support of her cause. He offered a theory as to why the Vatican did not speak quickly to explain the Davis meeting:
“I was very disappointed to see the pope having been used that way, and that his willingness to be friendly to someone was turned against him. What may originally have prevented them from issuing a statement was the desire not to give this story too much air. But what they eventually came to realize was that they needed to correct some gross misrepresentations of what had happened. It shows that Pope Francis met with many people on the trip, and that she was simply another person who he tried to be kind to.”
In the same article, an Italian Vatican observer also offered his view of the Kim Davis situation:
” ‘Nobody in the Catholic Church wants another Regensburg,’ said Massimo Faggioli, an associate professor of theology and director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He was referring to the backlash after Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, gave a speech in Regensburg, Germany, that appeared to denigrate Islam.
” ‘This was not as serious as Regensburg, when Benedict read his own speech,’ Dr. Faggioli said about the meeting attended by Ms. Davis. ‘But the pope has to be able to rely on his own system, and in this case the system failed him. The question is, was it a mistake, or was it done with full knowledge of how toxic she was?’ ”
“The meeting with Ms. Davis was clearly a misstep, Dr. Faggioli said, ‘because the whole trip to the United States he very carefully didn’t want to give the impression that he was being politicized by any side.’
“He added, ‘And this thing is the most politicized thing that you can imagine.’ “
While Pope Francis’ meeting with Grassi was not the important pastoral step that needs to be done: meeting with LGBT people because they are LGBT, it still serves as a great model for bishops and other pastoral leaders. He showed them, as he has done in the past, that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity should not mean they are excluded from conversations and relationships with church officials.
While Pope Francis’ words about LGBT people and relationships may not be clear, his warm and friendly gestures are very clear. May his actions speak louder than his words!
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry