Hoy, a newspaper in the Extremadura region of Spain, reported that Diego Neria Lejárraga and his fiancée had a private audience with the pontiff that took place at his official residence.
Neria told Francis in a letter that some of his fellow parishioners at the church he attends in the Spanish city of Plasencia rejected him after he underwent sex-reassignment surgery. He said a priest even called him “the devil’s daughter.”
Francis called Neria on Christmas Eve after receiving his letter.
The private audience took place a month later.
“After hearing him on many occasions, I felt that he would listen to me,” Neria told Hoy in an interview the newspaper published on Sunday.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of what many LGBT Catholics have described as the Vatican’s more moderate tone on marriage rights for same-sex couples and other issues since Francis became pope nearly two years ago.
Francis — the former archbishop of Buenos Aires — in July 2013 told reporters who asked him about the reported homosexuality of a man he appointed to oversee the Vatican bank that gay men and lesbians should not be judged or marginalized. An Italian Jesuit magazine a few months later published an interview with the Argentine-born pontiff during which he said the church has grown “obsessed” with gay marriage, abortion and contraception.
Francis last November demoted an American cardinal who is an outspoken critic of marriage rights for same-sex couples and abortion.
LGBT rights advocates earlier this month criticized the pontiff over comments he made during his trip to the Philippines that appeared to suggest same-sex marriage threatens the family.
Francis in 2010 described Argentina’s same-sex marriage bill as “the work of the devil” before President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed it into law. Catholic bishops who attended a meeting on the family at the Vatican last October released a document that said gay unions are not “remotely analogous” to “God’s plan for marriage and the family.”
Papal audience ‘a piece of good news’
José María Núñez Blanco, president of Fundación Triángulo, a Spanish advocacy group, on Sunday in a statement criticized the Vatican’s positions on LGBT-specific issues while describing Francis’ meeting with Neria as “a piece of good news.”
“It is absolutely absurd that a believer is prevented from living their religious beliefs,” said Núñez. “Some proclaim the religion of love and dedicate themselves to spreading hate. Hopefully the Catholic Church ceases to be a machine of hate and suffering for the good of believers and non-believers.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a group for LGBT Catholics, noted to the Washington Blade on Sunday that many high-level Catholic officials in Europe have “spoken very harshly” against trans people.
Duddy-Burke nevertheless described Francis’ meeting with Neria as “a very significant event.”
“For the pope to meet with a transgender man about to be married, and for that meeting to result in this man feeling more hopeful about his place in the Church, shows a concern for those at the very margins of our church,” Duddy-Burke told the Blade. “I hope the pope listened carefully to this man’s experience, and will speak about what he heard.”
Human Rights Campaign Director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera described the meeting to the Blade as an “extraordinary event.”
“This is the kind of pastoral care and inclusion of the margins we know the church is capable of,” she said.