The day before Pope Francis met anti-gay county clerk Kim Davis in Washington last week, he held a private meeting with a longtime friend from Argentina who has been in a same-sex relationship for 19 years.
Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man, brought his partner, Iwan Bagus, as well several other friends to the Vatican Embassy on September 23 for a brief visit with the Pope. A video of the meeting shows Grassi and Francis greeting each other with a warm hug.
In an exclusive interview with CNN, Grassi said the visit was arranged personally with the Pope via email in the weeks ahead of Francis’ highly anticipated visit to the United States.
“Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug,” Grassi said.
The meeting between the Pope and gay couple adds another intriguing twist to the strange aftermath of Francis’ first-ever trip to the United States. Since news broke on Tuesday of Francis’ meeting with Davis, conservatives have cheered the seemingly implicit endorsement, while liberals have questioned how much the Pope knew about her case. Davis spent six days in a Kentucky jail last month for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The two encounters – one with an openly gay couple and one with a government official who ardently opposes homosexuality – have left the Vatican scrambling to issue statements that seek to de-politicize the Pope’s meetings and agenda.
On Friday afternoon, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that Grassi had asked to present his friends to Francis in Washington.
“As noted in the past, the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue,” Lombardi said.
Earlier on Friday, the Vatican said that the meeting with Davis was not intended as a show of support for her cause and “the only real audience granted by the Pope at the nunciature (embassy) was with one of his former students and his family.”
“That was me,” Grassi said.
Grassi, who is 67, added that he is willing to talk about his private moment with the pontiff because he was upset about media coverage of the Pope’s meeting with Davis.
“I want to show the truth of who Pope Francis is,” he said.
Pope Francis taught Grassi in literature and psychology classes at Inmaculada Concepcion, a Catholic high school in Sante Fe, Argentina, from 1964-1965. Grassi, who said he is an atheist, moved to the United States in 1978 and runs a catering business in Washington.
Grassi said the Pope has long known that he is gay, but has never condemned his sexuality or his same-sex relationship. In the video, Francis says he recalls meeting Grassi’s boyfriend in Rome.
“He has never been judgmental,” Grassi said. “He has never said anything negative.”
Grassi said that he asked for the meeting in Washington because the friends he brought along have been through difficult times and wanted to receive of a blessing from the pontiff.
At the end the meeting, the Pope hugs both Grassi and Bagus and kisses them on the cheek.