Story highlights

Diego Neria Lejarraga says he had a private audience with the Pope in January

Catholic doctrine holds sex change procedures don't change person's gender in church's eyes

Neria: "If this Pope has a long life, which all of his followers hope, I think things will change"

Plasencia, Spain CNN  — 

Has Pope Francis taken another step to push for tolerance in the Catholic Church?

Yes, says Diego Neria Lejarraga, a transgender man who says he had a private audience with the Pope in late January, reportedly a first for the pontiff. Neria was born as a girl in Spain and raised as a devout Catholic.

But after his sex change operation eight years ago, many people scorned him in church in his hometown of Plasencia in western Spain. Neria recalls heated discussions with a parish priest and some others in town. Afterward, he started staying away from Mass.

“I’ve never lost faith, ever,” Neria says. “But the other thing is the rejection.”

He wrote to Pope Francis last year, saying his local bishop helped get the letter noticed. Next, according to Neria, came two phone calls from Francis. And then, a discreet audience on a Saturday evening, January 24, at the papal residence, Casa Santa Marta.

Vatican spokesmen and the local Spanish bishop’s office declined to comment on the meeting, insisting the Pope’s private meetings are just that.

Neria, a civil servant, told CNN that he’s not an activist for transgender people and doesn’t expect changes overnight.

“This man loves the whole world,” Neria says of Pope Francis. “I think there’s not – in his head, in his way of thinking, discrimination against anyone. I’m speaking about him, not the institution.”

Catholic doctrine holds that sex change procedures do not change a person’s gender in the eyes of the church.

“But if this Pope has a long life, which all of his followers hope,” Neria says, “I think things will change.”

And he’s already seen changes at home. The downside: Neria says he’s unaccustomed to the sudden media interest in him since the story broke in the local paper, Hoy, of Extremadura. He says he’s gotten queries from journalists as far afield as India and Colombia. But he also sees a positive side.

“Just the fact that you’ve met the holy father, without knowing what was said,” Neria says, “people now seem to look at you in a different way.”