For a community of trans women in Italy, finding welcome at a Catholic church—and from Pope Francis himself—has been life changing.
In Torvaianica, a town just outside Rome, the Church of the Immaculate Blessed Virgin has gained a reputation for the welcome it extends to trans people. The pastor, Fr. Andrea Conocchia, has taken the lead in making the church a place where all are truly welcomed.
According to Religion News Service, Conocchia is most at home ministering in the heart of his community, not just behind the altar. The article explains:
“[I]n the past two years, Conocchia has gained fame for serving a particular community that found him shortly after he arrived at Blessed Virgin: a group of trans women whose lives he has changed both practically and spiritually. Since April, at the invitation of the Vatican, Conocchia has brought four groups of LGBTQ people to meet Pope Francis and receive needed medical care.”
At first, the trans women, who are mostly migrant sex workers, turned to Conocchia mostly out of necessity. The Covid pandemic had left them especially vulnerable economically and medically.
“When the pandemic hit, we as trans people had to knock on doors because we had nothing to eat,” one woman shared. “Don Andrea was the only one to bring God to us.”
Word quickly spread among the women that Conocchia would offer them help and welcome. As more and more people sought out Conocchia’s ministry, he urged them to share their stories with Pope Francis. In April 2020, the pope sent money and food to the parish through the papal almoner.
A year later, the almoner “called Conocchia to tell him to bring the trans women and others in need to the Vatican to receive COVID-19 vaccines and health checkups.” Francis instructed Vatican officials to give the guests a warm and sensitive welcome. Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay friend of the pope’s quoted Francis as saying: “Ask for their names, ask for anything they need, but do not ask them about their sex.”
Francis met the women and spoke to them with compassion. One woman said that the pope told her in Spanish, “Don’t worry, we are all the same in the eyes of God.”
The pope offered encouragement to Conocchia as well, telling him, “Keep going, continue in this ministry, you are doing well.”
While not everyone in Conocchia’s parish approves of his ministry to trans people, including some of his fellow priests, Conocchia has a conviction that he is doing the right thing.
And for the trans women who had the opportunity to meet the pope, the encounter deeply touched their lives of faith. They believe Francis’s message of inclusion is shaping the church for the better.
“Pope Francis is everything for us,” one woman said.
Francis’ welcoming attitude to LGBTQ+ people has been a steady thread woven through his pontificate, ever since his 2013 remark, “Who am I to judge?” Although he has stopped short of amending Catholic teaching on gender and sexuality, his stance of pastoral openness has made a significant difference in the lives of many LGBTQ+ Catholics, not least this trans community in Italy.
While debates about gender continue to roil the church, Francis’ model of putting love first cuts through the noise, demonstrating the welcome that should be extended to all.
—Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, September 17, 2022