March 23, 2015 at 12:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Pope Francis meets with gay, trans prisoners

Catholic, gay news, Washington Blade

Pope Francis on March 21, 2015, met with gay and transgender prisoners during his trip to the Italian city of Naples. (Photo by Jeon Han; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis on Saturday met with 10 gay, transgender and HIV-positive prisoners during a daylong visit to the Italian city of Naples.

Andrea Miluzzo, director of LGBT News Italia, told the Washington Blade the inmates were among the 90 prisoners with whom the pontiff had lunch during his visit to an overcrowded prison in the city’s Poggioreale neighborhood. Members of the local affiliate of Arcigay, an Italian LGBT advocacy group, were among those who were allowed to stand along the streets of Scampia, a poor Neapolitan neighborhood overrun with crime, earlier in the day as Francis passed through in his open-air car known as the pope-mobile.

The Vatican Press Office in a bulletin it posted on its website about Francis’ visit to the prison made no specific mention of the LGBT inmates with whom he met.

La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, reported 10 prisoners from a ward that houses gay and trans prisoners and those living with HIV are among those who met with the pontiff.

“Sometimes you feel disappointed, discouraged, abandoned by all,” said Francis, according to an Italian transcript of his speech the Vatican Press Office posted to its website. “God does not forget his children, he never abandons them. He is always on our side, especially during times of trial.”

The Vatican Press Office in a separate bulletin said Francis held a “meeting” with residents of Scampia and met with “different social groups” in the southern Italian city known as a hot bed of mafia activity.

“He met with the population of the Scampia district and different social groups representing the world of culture, of law, of professional work, of the marginalized and of the migrants,” reads the bulletin, which is in Italian.

The Vatican did not immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment.

Miluzzo on Saturday noted Arcigay’s Naples chapter is the only affiliate of the group that has officially backed LGBT News Italia’s campaign in support of a boycott of gay fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s label over their controversial comments about children conceived through in vitro fertilization.

“My hope is that the church will finally move from these demonstrations to facts,” Miluzzo told the Blade, referring to Francis’ trip to Naples. “And that it will put an end to the ideology opposed to our search for freedom and equal opportunities.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that ministers to LGBT Catholics, welcomed Francis’ decision to meet with LGBT prisoners and advocates.

“This is another example that Pope Francis does not consider sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status as something that should prevent him from engaging them in dialogue and conversation,” DeBernardo told the Blade on Saturday in an e-mail. “Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, these same personal characteristics were causes for the popes to shun and ignore people, much to the discredit of the church.”

Francis’ trip to Naples is the latest indication of the Vatican’s more moderate tone towards LGBT Catholics and other issues since the Argentine-pontiff became pope in March 2013.

A group of LGBT Catholics who were in Italy with New Ways Ministry last month received VIP seats at a general audience with Francis at St. Peter’s Square that coincided with Ash Wednesday. A trans man from Spain in January had a private meeting with the pontiff at the Vatican after telling him in a letter that some of his fellow parishioners rejected him after he underwent sex-reassignment surgery.

Francis — who is the former archbishop of Buenos Aires — in 2001 kissed and washed the feet of 12 people with AIDS during his visit to a hospice.

The pontiff continues to face criticism from LGBT advocates and Catholics in spite of his aforementioned efforts.

Francis urged Slovak voters to support proposed amendments to their country’s constitution that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman and banned gays and lesbians from adopting children. The Feb. 7 referendum ultimately failed because of insufficient turnout.

LGBT advocates in the Philippines sharply criticized Francis in January after he suggested during his trip to the country that marriage rights for same-sex couples threatens the family. The pontiff in 2010 described Argentina’s gay nuptials law as “the work of the devil” before the country’s president signed it.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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