On Friday afternoon, Grassi was cooking Argentine-style beef tenderloin at his home in LeDroit Park in Northwest D.C. His cellphone and land line were ringing off the hook, and ABC News was at the door in the rain, but by 4:30 p.m. he had to prepare a dinner for 25 people at the Phillips Collection.
He met the future pope while he was in high school in his native Argentine city, Santa Fe. In 1964 and 1965 Jorge Bergoglio taught Argentine literature and psychology at Inmaculada Concepción.
“He was an extraordinary teacher and a great mentor,” Grassi said, turning off his iPhone and lighting a Dunhill cigarette. “He kept pushing my horizons, to oblige me to keep looking. He asked me to put on the skin of my fellow man, to feel their pain.”
Grassi, 67, has operated his own D.C. catering business since 2005. Before that he was the director of catering for the National Gallery of Art. Grassi moved to the District in 1978 and lost touch with his teacher until 2008, when they rekindled their communication. Bergoglio became pope five years later, and Grassi reached out to Francis ahead of his first trip to the United States. The pope said he would like to be able to give Grassi a hug, and a meeting on Sept. 23 was arranged.
Grassi brought his boyfriend of 19 years, Iwan, and four friends to the Vatican Embassy for a private audience. Grassi, wearing a bright blue blazer, embraced his former teacher, now clothed in white, and then introduced him to Iwan and his friends. When news broke about Kim Davis’s attendance at the Vatican, Grassi decided to speak out.
“Although I didn’t know any details, I knew immediately that he had nothing to do with this, that this was arranged by other people without telling him the real character” of Davis, Grassi said. “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.’ And I’m extremely pleased that I was right. And I never had any doubt that I was right.”
In 2010, when Francis was a cardinal in Argentina, Grassi read media reports that his former teacher had condemned the legalization of same-sex marriage. So he sent a long e-mail to the cardinal expressing his disappointment, and the cardinal responded that his words had been cherry-picked and twisted, and that the reported sentiment was not true, according to Grassi.
He wrote that e-mail “with all the respect of the world,” Grassi said. “I stood firm on my position and I ended the e-mail saying ‘Don’t think it was easy for me to write this e-mail but I had to do it, and I think it was the right thing to do because 40 years ago you taught me I had to do it.’ He wrote back to me telling me, first of all, how sorry he was that he had hurt my feelings, that he had hurt me. One of the things he said on that e-mail was that ‘I want you to know that in my work there is absolutely no place for homophobia.’ And I think that’s what I want people to know.”