This story has been updated.
Inside a home in an Argentine river town called San Lorenzo, a telephone rang. For the next 10 minutes, an ordinary Argentine woman says she spoke to Pope Francis — and that their discussion may signal a profound change for millions of Catholics across the world. Could it be? The Vatican on Thursday confirmed that the telephone call happened, but seemed anxious to play down its significance.
Either way, Jaqui Lisbona, a dark-haired Argentine woman with a broad smile, says her life has changed.
Her story begins with a problem. Lisbona loved her civil law husband. She had been with him for 19 years. They had two children together and shared a life. They considered themselves staunch Catholics. She and her husband prayed every night and “always” turned to God. “When someone is in a difficult situation, God is the first one to turn to,” she said.
But her husband, Julio Sabetta, had previously been divorced — a fact that, according to church teachings, would restrict him and possibly even her from receiving communion. Lisbona didn’t know what to do. The last time she tried to take the Eucharist was last year, but the local priest not only denied her communion, but also told her she couldn’t go to confession. “[They told me that] when I went home, I resumed a life of sin,” she told the Buenos Aires radio station La Red Am910.
Distraught, she “spontaneously” wrote down her concerns about “violating church rules” — and shipped the letter off to the Vatican for Pope Francis. “I wrote to him because he’s Argentinean, he listens to people and I believe in miracles,” she said.
Six months passed. Then on Monday, the phone chirped at her San Lorenzo home. Her husband answered it. On the other end was someone who identified himself as “Father Bergoglio” — and he was asking to speak with Lisbona. “My husband asked, ‘Who’s calling?’ The voice replied, ‘Father Bergoglio.’ I asked him if it was really him, the pope, and he said it was and that he was calling in response to my letter dated in September.”
Lisbona claims the pope told her “there was no problem” with her taking communion, and that he was “dealing with the issue” of remarried divorcees, the Vatican Insider reports. “He said my letter was useful in helping him address this issue…. Then he told me there are some priests who are more papist than the pope.”
The Vatican initially declined to comment on Wednesday but doesn’t deny that the phone call occurred. The Vatican considers the pope’s personal phone calls to individuals private, according to the Catholic Reporter. “It’s between the Pope and the woman,” one spokesman told CNN.
Update, 12:45 p.m.: The Vatican’s head spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, later issued this statement:
Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office. That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.
The issue of how to bring divorced Catholics – who haven’t had annulments – back into the church is particularly key right now, as the pope has called a rare synod this fall on issues related to the family. He has singled out the concern and many experts hope he will find ways to make it easier for divorced people and their families to fully participate in church life.
Back to original post: Lisbona’s recollection, if true, marks another sharp departure from tradition for a pope who today is widely recognized as the most tolerant pontiff in a generation. From his widely publicized “who am I to judge?” remark on homosexuality to his repudiation of some of the luxuries his position affords, Pope Francis hasn’t shown reservation over wading into some of today’s most contentious issues.
But even by his standards, his reported leniency on divorce — not to mention the phone call’s unusual circumstances — may represent just how open to change Pope Francis has become. The alleged discussion has heightened expectation that there may be additional, and more concrete, alterations to Catholic Church teachings ahead. In October, a worldwide meeting of bishops will revolve around what Pope Francis has called “pastoral challenges to the family.”
Catholic teaching holds that a divorced members of the church must first obtain an official annulment of their marriages if they’re to be remarried in the church. What’s more, according to New Jersey’s Trenton diocese, Catholics aren’t allowed to marry someone who is divorced unless he or she has had an annulment.
Neither Lisbona nor husband Julio Sabetta responded to requests from The Washington Post on Thursday morning, and it’s unclear whether Sabetta has had an annulment. What is clear, however, is that he was pretty stoked on Monday about the pope’s alleged phone call.
“After the birth of my daughters, today passed one of the most beautiful things,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “I had my house called by no one more or less than PAPA Francisco and it was the biggest thrill. The call originated with a letter my wife sent him. And he took the time to call and talk to her…. Thank God for this blessing.”
And from the Vatican Insider comes this interesting footnote: “The priest who apparently refused to administer Communion to [Lisbona], no longer exercises his ministry. He asked to be dispensed from his obligations as priest so he could get married.”
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this story.