Report: Pope Francis meets with, hugs transgender man

by Thomas C. Fox

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Gay Catholic leaders have expressed their pleasure following reports that Pope Francis, in an unprecedented move, met last week with a transgender Spaniard at the Vatican.

While the Vatican has yet to confirm the meeting, it has been widely reported in the press, and there has been no Vatican denial.

"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," Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told NCR in an email.

Said New Ways Ministry's co-founder Sr. Jeannine Gramick: "Jorge Mario Bergoglio's devotion to Mary, Untier of Knots, found expression in Pope Francis' embrace of the transgender Spaniard."

"This was a worldwide hug that has reverberated to transgender people across the globe," she told NCR, referring to reports that Francis hugged Diego Neria Lejarraga, a 48-year-old transgender man, when the two met at the Vatican.

The meeting, which took place Jan. 24, was first reported Monday by Spanish daily Hoy. According Hoy, Lejarraga wrote to the pope last year, saying he had been "marginalized" by church officials in the city of Plasencia in the Estremadura region. A practicing Catholic, he said local clergy had rebuffed him and said one parish priest had called him "the devil's daughter."

It was then Lejarraga reportedly wrote to Francis, hoping he could explain to the pope transgender issues and even possibly receive a papal blessing.

"After hearing him on many occasions, I felt that he would listen to me," Lejarraga told Hoy.

Hoy reported Francis phoned Lejarraga twice in December, and during the second phone call, invited him to come visit at the Vatican. A date was arranged for the meeting.

According to Hoy, Francis told Lejarraga in an initial phone call that God loves all his children "as they are." He went on: "You are a son of God and the Church loves you and accepts you as you are."

The message of hope reportedly bowled over Lejarraga. He was even more surprised when Francis invited him to come to the Vatican for a personal meeting and offered to pay for it.

Lejarraga reportedly attended the meeting with his fiancée. During the meeting, Lejarraga asked Francis if, after his gender reassignment, there was "a place somewhere in the house of God for him." He told Hoy Francis responded by embracing him.

DeBernardo said while he was pleased with the development, he was also cautious.

"At this time, I wouldn't use the word 'acceptance' to describe the Vatican's stance toward the transgender community. I think 'dialogue' would be a better word," he said.

"The Vatican's reluctance to verify the meeting is another indication of why I don't think their attitude can yet be called 'acceptance,' " DeBernardo said.

An LGBT pilgrimage

Gramick recently wrote to Francis, asking him to meet with her and a group of LGBT Catholics when they visit Rome in February.

In a Dec. 23 letter to the pope, Gramick wrote that she would be leading a pilgrimage for 50 LGBT Catholics and their families and friends.

"They are so very heartened by your words of mercy and welcome," she wrote in the letter, which was published on the News Ways Ministry blog. "They believe, as you say, that receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is spiritual nourishment that we need to grow in our love-relationship with God, not a prize to be awarded those who are worthy."

She asked Francis to meet with her group before or after his general audience Feb. 17.

"Would it be possible for you to meet personally with these faith-filled Catholics who have felt too long excluded from their Church?" she wrote.

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @NCRTomFox.]

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