After days of speculation about Pope Francis’ meeting while in the U.S. with a Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, the Vatican clarified Friday that the meeting should not be seen as a show of support by the pope for the clerk.
In an interesting turning of the tables, the Vatican also confirmed that the pope had met with a gay man and his partner the day before meeting clerk Kim Davis.
Francis’ meeting with Davis “should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects,” Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said in a statement.
“Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City,” Lombardi said in the statement.
“Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability," he continued. "The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family."
“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,” said the spokesman.
The former student Lombardi mentioned in the statement identified himself in interviews with CNN and The New York Times late Friday as Yayo Grassi, a 67-year old Argentine who now lives in Washington and was a student of the pope's years ago.
Grassi told the Times that Francis had called him before the pontiff came to the U.S. “and he told me that he would love to give me a hug in Washington.”
Grassi said they met for 15-20 minutes and the meeting was purely personal. “I don’t think he was trying to say anything in particular,” he told the Times. “He was just meeting with his ex-student and a very close friend of his.”
A video of that encounter shows Francis meeting Grassi in a room at the Nunciature, and then introducing the pope to friends and family, including a man who appears to be his partner. The pontiff smiles and greets each person in the traditional Argentine way with a kiss on the cheek.
Francis offers a blessing to one woman in the group, and tells another who becomes emotional in his presence: "Pray for me."
In a separate statement late Friday night, Lombardi confirmed Francis' meeting with Grassi.
"Mr. Yayo Grassi, a former Argentine student of Pope Francis, who had already met other times in the past with the Pope, asked to present his mother and several friends to the Pope during the Pope’s stay in Washington, DC," said the spokesman.
"As noted in the past, the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue," he said.
Friday’s statements and news of the additional encounter in DC caps a story that has attracted wide media attention, with many asking why the pope would choose to meet with a controversial figure like Davis in secret during his otherwise well-received visit to the U.S. Sept. 22-27.
Questions were especially pointed because the pontiff had taken a fairly moderate tone on issues of religious liberty during his visit --placing them always in the context of other freedoms, and refusing to use harsh language about the issue.
Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica, a Canadian who assists the Vatican press office with English-language media, said Friday that the encounter between Davis and Francis was not organized by Vatican staff.
Rosica said the Vatican was unsure who the meeting was organized by, and that it might have been an initiative by the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Vigano. The encounter took place at the DC embassy Sept. 24, just before the pope headed to New York for a visit there.
Rosica said that Vatican staff were not sure the pope “knew fully each of the people he was meeting” while greeting people at the nunciature. The priest also said Francis had personally approved Friday's first press statement after a meeting with Lombardi on the issue.