The day before Pope Francis met anti-gay county clerk Kim Davis in Washington last week, he held a private meeting with a longtime friend from Argentina who has been in a same-sex relationship for 19 years.
Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man, brought his partner, Iwan, as well several other friends to the Vatican Embassy on September 23 for a brief visit with the Pope. A video of the meeting shows Grassi and Francis greeting each other with a warm hug.
Grassi declined to disclose details about the short visit, but said it was arranged personally by the Pope via email in the weeks ahead of Francis’ highly anticipated visit to the United States.
“Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug,” Grassi said.
The meeting between Grassi and the Pope adds another intriguing twist to the strange aftermath of Francis’ first-ever trip to the United States. Since news broke on Tuesday of Francis’ meeting with Davis, conservatives have cheered the seemingly implicit endorsement, while liberals have questioned how much the Pope knew about her case.
In a statement on Friday, the Vatican said that the meeting with Davis was not intended as a show of support for her cause and said “the only real audience granted by the Pope at the nunciature (embassy) was with one of his former students and his family.”
“That was me,” Grassi said.
Grassi said that Pope Francis taught him in literature and psychology classes at Inmaculada Concepcion high school in Flores, Argentina, from 1964-1965.
Grassi said the Pope has long known that he is gay, but has never condemned his sexuality or his same-sex relationship. Grassi said he and Iwan (he declined to disclose his last name due to privacy concerns) also met Francis last year in Rome.
“He has never been judgmental,” Grassi said. “He has never said anything negative.”
“Obviously he is the pastor of the church and he has to follow the church’s teachings,” Grassi added. “But as a human being he understands all kinds of situations, and he is open to all kinds of people, including those with different sexual characteristics.”
Grassi said he believes the Pope was “misled” into meeting with Davis, who served six days in a Kentucky jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Davis’ lawyers had portrayed the papal meeting as an endorsement of her cause. After several days of questions and culture-war sparring, the Vatican said that was not the case.
Looking to smother the fierce controversy, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Davis was one of “several dozen” people who had been invited by the Vatican ambassador to see Francis during his visit to the U.S. capital.
“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,” Lombardi said in a statement.
The meeting with Davis disappointed many liberal Catholics but delighted conservatives, who saw it as a sign that the pope was clearly condemning a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.
Davis said on Wednesday that the pope had thanked her for her courage and told her to “stay strong”, adding that knowing that he agreed with what she was doing “kind of validates everything”.
EMBASSY UNDERESTIMATED SIGNIFICANCE
While Lombardi declined to take questions on the incident, his assistant, Canadian priest Father Tom Rosica, laid the blame on the Vatican embassy in Washington, saying it had underestimated the impact of Davis’s presence at the reception.
“I’m not sure that they (the embassy) realized how significant it would be,” he told reporters.
Rosica said he did not believe the pope was even indirectly involved in inviting Davis, adding that the greeting was very brief and that she and her husband were among the many guests at the Washington embassy before the pope left for New York.
Rosica said he did not know if there had been a private meeting. Davis’ lawyer, Mat Staver, said the couple were not in a line, that the meeting was private and seen only by Vatican personnel and security.
“Had Kim Davis been in a line of people or been seen by anyone outside of Vatican personnel, we would not have been able to keep her visit secret,” he said in a statement.
Rosica said the pope was most likely not fully aware of how controversial a figure Davis had become.
“I would simply say her case is a very complex case. It has all kinds of intricacies. Was there an opportunity to brief the pope on this beforehand? I don’t think so. Was an in depth process done? No, probably not,” Rosica said.
Asked if the pope had been set up intentionally by someone in the embassy, Rosica said: “No, reading all of the information, listening to all of the facts, these things happen.”
Rosica said he also doubted that the Davis and her husband spent 15 minutes with the pope, as her lawyer had reported, saying “there simply was not enough time”.
Davis has said her beliefs as an Apostolic Christian prevent her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Her church belongs to a Protestant movement known as Apostolic Pentecostalism.
Rosica said he hoped the Davis incident and its aftermath would not distract from the significance of the U.S. trip.
“The visit was extraordinary … so to allow this to kind of overshadow it would be very unfortunate. This is not the centerpiece of the papal visit. This is one small part of it, but it is a loaded centerpiece.”