A longtime friend of Pope Francis who is openly gay said Friday that he and his partner met with the pontiff during his recent trip to Washington, adding a new layer of fodder for Americans who are riveted by this pope and are scrutinizing his words and actions for affirmation of their own views.
Yayo Grassi, a 67-year-old D.C. caterer who was born in Argentina, said he decided to speak publicly about his audience with the pope after news broke that Francis had met during his visit with Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who went to jail rather than allow her office to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
While conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have hailed the Francis-Davis meeting as validation of their cause, the Vatican said Friday that the encounter was not meant as an endorsement of all of Davis’s actions and views.
“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,” a Vatican statement said.
Grassi, who met Francis as a high school student in their native Argentina, said the cleric told him in 2010 that “in my work there is absolutely no place for homophobia.” Based on that, Grassi said, he was concerned and suspicious when he learned about the Davis visit.
“I received from friends of mine a lot of quite disturbing mail, telling me that ‘this is your pope, look what he did’ and ‘He’s a coward.’ And my defense is, we don’t know anything. Just wait until things come out,” Grassi said in an interview at his home in the District. “And I’m extremely pleased that I was right.”
Francis’s inclusive approach has fueled his huge popularity in the United States, alongside his ability to speak out on issues from immigration to global warming while deftly sidestepping — in most cases — the polarizing details of this country’s bitter culture wars.
The pope made clear during his U.S. trip that he is concerned about protecting the religious freedom of individuals whose beliefs may at times put them at odds with the law. He took time to visit an order of nuns who are suing the White House over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
But the case of Davis, an elected public servant, has been controversial even among conservatives worried about the impact of gay marriage, with some saying her refusal to allow her deputies to issue same-sex marriage licenses was a step too far.
The Vatican confirmed the pope’s Sept. 24 meeting with Davis reluctantly on Wednesday, after it had been revealed by her lawyer. But officials declined to provide details, and senior U.S. bishops refused multiple requests for information all week.
On Friday, the Vatican tried to downplay the significance of the visit with Davis. Papal spokesmen said the meeting was brief, initiated by the papal embassy and not Francis himself, and was one of dozens of such meetings Francis had during his trip. A Vatican spokesman said the meeting with Davis “has continued to provoke comments and discussion” and added that the Vatican wanted to “contribute to an objective understanding of what transpired.”
But papal observers continued to speculate. Was the pope aware he was stepping into a potential political quagmire? Had Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò — the papal ambassador who had invited Davis to the embassy and is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage — gone rogue? Or had other bishops been involved but — embarrassed at the fuss the visit triggered — were now staying silent to make it seem like Viganò had acted alone?
At one point, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English-language spokesman for the Vatican, noted, “The only real audience granted by the pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.”
That student, it became clear hours later, was Grassi — a disclosure that thrilled both liberal Francis fans and more middle-of-the-road Catholics.
“Pope Francis never ceases to surprise us,” said Christopher J. Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “The news that Francis met with a gay couple should put to rest any notion that Pope Francis is held down by the narrow ideological divisions that plague the United States. He is first and foremost a pastor who is willing to encounter and engage anyone.”
A video of Grassi’s visit with the pope last Wednesday shows the two men embracing and Grassi introducing Francis to his partner and the other guests he had brought along.
“We’ve taken up too much of your time,” Grassi says in Spanish.
“No, by God, thanks for coming by,” the pope replies.