According to a Spanish newspaper report, Pope Francis recently held a private meeting at the Vatican with a transgender man and his fiancee.
Diego Neria Lejárraga had written to the pope about being rejected by his faith community after undergoing gender confirming surgery. Neria explained: “After hearing him on many occasions, I felt that he would listen to me.”
Neria told the newspaper Hoy, from the Extremadura region of Spain, that Pope Francis had initially responded to his letter with a phone call, and the pontiff told Neria that the letter “touched his soul.”
According to The Huffington Post, the private meeting last week was a result of this December exchange on the phone. A spokesperson from the Vatican, Fr. Manuel Dorantes, would not confirm the meeting, however.
In the Huffington Post article, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, questioned the Vatican’s silence but said he would not be surprised if the meeting had happened. He said the meeting did not necessarily indicate a stance of papal “acceptance,” but it was definitely a very positive indication of the way that Francis wants the church to respond:
” ‘The Vatican’s reluctance to verify the meeting is another indication of why I don’t think their attitude can yet be called ‘acceptance’…
“This pope, through his many gestures of meeting with those who society and the church treat as outcasts, has made it his mission to lead by example, and to send a strong message of welcome and hospitality to all people, regardless of their state in life. . . .
” ‘Pope Francis is an intellectual who values discussion…I think that his meeting with the transgender man was a gesture not only of pastoral care, but of genuine interest in learning about the transgender experience from a firsthand source.’ “
“For the pope to meet with a transgender man about to be married, and for that meeting to result in this man feeling more hopeful about his place in the Church, shows a concern for those at the very margins of our church…I hope the pope listened carefully to this man’s experience, and will speak about what he heard.”
Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign, affirmed this view, saying the meeting was an “extraordinary event.”
Pope Francis has communicated with LGBT communities before, including a letter to the Florence-based Catholic group Kairos. This outreach was one of the things that inspired Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, to ask the pope if he would meet with a group of LGBT Catholic pilgrims next month in Rome.
Neria told the Spanish daily Hoy that he had long struggled because of his identity, saying “My jail was my own body…Because it absolutely didn’t correspond with what my soul felt.” Transitioning at 40, the man said rejection and condemnation led by the church still left him trapped. Priest mades comments to him such as, “How do you dare to come here with your condition” and “You are the devil’s daughter.”
Neria’s encounter with the pope was entirely transformative and set the man at peace, reports The Washington Post:
“Neria told Hoy when he got before the pope, he asked whether, after his transition, whether there a ‘corner in the house of God’ for someone like him. And he said Francis then embraced him.”
Indeed, it has been these personal moments during Francis’ papacy which most clearly reveal his desires for the church and direction for ministry to LGBT people. DeBernardo tells People magazine:
“A pope’s influence is more from his personal example than from any doctrinal edicts…That’s why this meeting is very powerful and can really help to bring about a lot of good.”
If the Vatican confirms the meeting with Neria, the impact of Pope Francis’ witness that being a disciple of Christ means welcoming all would be that much more powerful. Hopefully, the pope will continue encountering many more LGBT people before next fall’s Synod on Family Life, and these meetings could inspire him to permit LGBT people to speak of their experiences of faith, relationship, and identity to the synod bishops.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry