Giulia Masieri, 32, is given Communion during the Mass held by Don Andrea Bigalli in the Church of Sant’Andrea in Florence, Italy. The parish welcomes gay Catholics. (Alessandro Penso/OnOff Picture for The Washington Post)

— The power of the Catholic Church in Italy has compelled thousands of gay men and lesbians to live in the shadows, and the opposition of bishops helped make this the only major nation in Western Europe without broad legal rights for same-sex couples. But gay Catholics here now speak of a new ray of light from what they call “l’effetto Francesco.”

The Francis Effect.

On Thursday, President Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, at a time when the new pontiff is upending church conventions and opening new doors. In their first face-to-face encounter, the two leaders — who have sought to bring change to their respective offices — focused on issues ranging from growing inequality to the challenges of global conflicts.

But for the pope, perhaps no one issue illustrates his divergence from tradition more than early signs of rapprochement between the church and gay Catholics.

Francis’s shift so far has been one of style over substance; nothing in the church’s teachings on homosexuality has changed, and conservative clerics remain deeply skeptical of any radical move toward broad acceptance. But few places offer a better snapshot of the church’s evolving relationship with its gay flock than here in Italy, the host of Vatican City and where Roman Catholicism wields outsize influence.

In 2007, opposition by Catholic bishops helped defeat a proposal to establish a civil partnerships law. Facing ostracism and shame, large numbers of gay Catholics remain terrified of exposure. For a nation that legalized divorce and abortion as far back as the 1970s, homosexuality remains the last taboo.

Among the gaggle of conservative cardinals and bishops of the Italian church, little has outwardly changed since Francis’s arrival. Although new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has expressed support for civil partnerships, the hope of Italian gays to match their European peers with rights for same-sex couples still remains a medium-term goal. But the influence on the ground of Francis’s words and deeds — including a recent suggestion that the church may look more closely at the issue of civil unions — has begun to create what gay Catholics here describe as a burgeoning spirit of acceptance in pockets of the church’s grass roots.

In Florence, a local parish council this month permitted a group of gay Catholics to hold their first public prayer session inside a Roman Catholic church. In Rome, a parish run by Jesuit priests announced a special service scheduled for April that, also for the first time in recent memory, is openly reaching out to gay as well as divorced Catholics. A leaflet for the service depicts Francis on the cover and reads: “The Church wants to be home. For everybody.”

Prompted by a new Vatican questionnaire seeking views on family issues including same-sex couples, a representative of the Diocese of Padua held a landmark meeting in December with a gay Catholic group. Luigi Pescina, a spokesman for the group, said members were told that local church officials would now aim to “strip ourselves of prejudice and fear” and “open up a relationship of exchange and enrichment” with local gay Catholics.

Testing boundaries

Most of all, the new pope’s words and deeds have emboldened liberal Italian priests to push boundaries they never would have under Benedict XVI.

From his perch at the millennia-old Sant’Alessandro parish nestled high above the olive groves of Tuscany, for instance, the Rev. Giorgio Mazzanti has long baptized the children of unmarried parents and offers the Eucharist to divorced worshipers. But he recently set a new standard for progressive clerics here by authorizing local actors to stage a production of “Bent,” the 1979 Martin Sherman play about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany.

The four sold-out shows — performed in a hall that shares a common wall with this village’s ancient Catholic church — depicted two men who fall in love at the Dachau concentration camp. At one point, the two male leads kiss.

President Obama said Thursday that in his meeting with Pope Francis the leaders discussed the plight of the poor, global conflicts and immigration reform. (The Associated Press)

“It seemed to me to be the right thing to do, to give space to this issue now,” said Mazzanti, 66, the longtime pastor at Sant’Alessandro. “The atmosphere created by our new pope has, in a sense, made it official for us to have a more open door.”

Supporters of an anti-discrimination law stalled in Italy’s Parliament, meanwhile, have found themselves quoting Francis to devout opponents. Perhaps more important, gay Catholics say Francis’s statements have begun to ease the minds of churchgoing family members.

“The conservatives have still not changed their positions, but I see something happening with the inclusive spirit of the new pope,” said Anna Paola Concia, the first openly lesbian member of the Italian Parliament and now a special adviser to the president on human rights.

Francis — who as cardinal of Buenos Aires vociferously opposed same-sex marriage — shocked many last July by asking: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

In recent weeks, Francis has offered further signs of staking out new territory. In an interview this month with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, he reiterated the church’s position that marriage itself should be “between a man and a woman” but seemed to leave room for other forms of recognition.

While cautioning that the pope has not come “out and approved” civil partnerships, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said on “Meet the Press” this month that church officials had been told by Francis that “rather than quickly condemn” them, “let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people.”

A new era?

A brief drive from the magnificent Duomo of Florence, down a street far from the omnipresent crowds of tourists, stands the far less remarkable Our Lady of the Cough Catholic Church.

One of a handful of liberal parishes in Tuscany, the church began quietly allowing a local gay Catholic group, Kairos, to start using the parish hall five years ago for monthly meetings.

The agreement, however, was based on the group keeping a low profile. Kairos could not, for instance, use the church’s name or address on its Web site.

But this month, with the parish council’s blessing, the group held its first public prayer session. Nonmembers were welcomed. Details were posted on the church bulletin board.

“It may seem small, but for us, this is important,” said Innocenzo Pontillo, coordinator of the 11-year-old group. “It is like feeling the light on your face. These are things which I feel would have been impossible before Pope Francis.”

New members of the group, like Anna Maria — a 35-year-old lesbian who was too afraid of being “outed” to give her last name — have come to consider the pope’s comments on homosexuality last July as a personal turning point.

She said her devoutly Catholic mother called her after hearing the pope’s declaration. The two of them had grown distant since Anna Maria had told her mother years earlier that she was a lesbian. “But when she called me, she said, ‘If the pope is not judging you, then who am I to judge you either?’ ”

Gay activists in Italy say it is far too soon to tell whether Francis will truly usher in a new era here. And for each priest who is partaking in an opening, there are probably 20 others who are not. One Tuscan priest, for instance, has recently become known for posting religious condemnations of gay men and lesbians on his Facebook page.

Anna Berni, a 72-year-old worshiper at Sant’Alessandro, for instance, said she fails to see the need for more openness toward gays. “What I can’t stand is arrogance, the imposition of difference,” she said. “There are limits for each one of us. They’re overturning family and society because those who are different want more rights.”

Priests such as the Rev. Giacomo Stinghi — the 80-year-old pastor at Our Lady of the Cough — are also bracing for a possible scolding from the region’s conservative cardinal. But so far, none has come. Stinghi said he and other liberal priests in the area have written to the cardinal in the past, asking for a more inclusive approach. He never responded.

“But now,” Stinghi said, “the new Holy Father has come along and solved our problem.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.