Yayo Grassi, a native of Argentina, has known and admired Pope Francis since the future pontiff was his high school teacher at a Catholic school in a city about 200 miles north of Buenos Aires.
Grassi, 67, told the Washington Blade in an interview at his home in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood on Tuesday that he never imagined his friendship with the Pope would become the subject of international headlines.
He has been besieged with requests for media interviews since news surfaced that he and his boyfriend of 19 years met with Francis at the Vatican Embassy in Washington on Sept. 23 during the Pope’s visit to the United States.
According to Grassi, who owns a D.C.-based catering business, he initially struggled over whether to talk to the media about what he considered a private matter. But he said he decided to go public about his Washington visit with the Pope after news surfaced the previous week that Francis met with Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who a judge sent to jail for refusing on religious grounds to approve marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
“One of the things that upset me extremely and profoundly was that people who were so much in love with this Pope immediately turned against him” after learning about his reported meeting with Davis, said Grassi.
“And I was telling my friends how can you forget everything this guy did? How can we forget these things for something that this woman said that we don’t even know is true or not?”
Grassi was referring to a statement released by the Vatican saying the Pope didn’t personally invite Davis to meet with him in Washington, that she was part of a larger group of people the Pope greeted briefly at a reception at the Vatican Embassy, and that Davis’s participation in the meeting was not intended to be an endorsement of various actions she has taken related to same-sex marriage.
In a development that surprised some Vatican observers, the same Vatican statement disclosed that “the only real audience granted by the Pope” at the Vatican Embassy during his Washington trip “was with one of his former students and his family,” the Washington Post reported.
Grassi told the Blade on Tuesday that a New York Times reporter identified him as the former student and quickly called him for comment.
“I said you can understand that this comes completely out of the sky,” Grassi recounted. “I said, ‘Can you give me 10 to 15 minutes to think about it?’ And he said absolutely. We’ll call you after 15 minutes.”
During that brief time Grassi said he quickly came to the conclusion that the Pope was being unfairly blamed for helping to support Kim Davis and the marriage equality opponents that had rallied around her.
“So I thought it is my friend who is being attacked,” he said. “The least I can do is defend him with the facts that I know. I don’t have to lie. All I have to do is tell exactly what happened.”
Among the things he told the Times and other media outlets, including the Blade, is that this was the second time he and his boyfriend had met with Francis since Francis was elected Pope in 2013.
Grassi told the Blade that when he informed the newly installed Pope that he and his boyfriend would be in Italy to attend a wedding for a friend that year Francis immediately invited them to greet him at a group ceremony in Saint Peter’s Square.
In front of hundreds of people “I remember Francis walking toward me with his arms open and he said, ‘You made it. You make me so happy,’” Grasso recalls. “And so we hugged and I introduced him to my boyfriend and we exchanged some words.”
Grassi told the Blade he first renewed his friendship with then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope, in 2008 when he visited Buenos Aires and met with Bergoglio, who held the title of Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Francis responded to an email message Grassi sent to the Pope this past June asking if the two could meet to catch up on things during the Pope’s visit to Washington – only if the pontiff had the time to do so.
“And he replied back almost immediately – I think the same day or the following day saying ‘oh, absolutely, I want to see you,’” Grassi said.
He said Francis told him in his email reply that Grassi should write back in early September when the Pope’s Washington schedule would be known and final arrangements could be made for their meeting. But Grassi said that when he saw media reports this summer of how busy the Pope would be in Washington he wrote back saying he would fully understand it if Francis would be too busy to meet with him.
Then, to his astonishment, about three weeks before he was scheduled to arrive in Washington Francis called Grassi by phone.
“It was my cell phone and I thought it was a joke,” Grassi said. “I was absolutely surprised that this person called me Obdulio,” the nickname that his high school teacher Bergoglio gave him nearly 50 years earlier.
“So I said who’s calling? And he said well who else calls you Obdulio?” said Grassi, who added, “Then I knew this is the real thing…And we had a 10- or 15-minute conversation. We talked about politics. We talked about President Obama. We talked about Cuba.”
Before the call ended Francis insisted he would have the time to meet with Grassi in Washington, according to Grassi. When Grassi mentioned that he would rather the Pope meet with four of his friends, some of whom were having health problems, so the Pope could bless them, Francis said, “Bring them with you.”
One of the friends captured the visit on video with her phone, which dozens of news media outlets have shown, including a scene where the Pope hugs Grassi and kisses Grassi’s boyfriend on both cheeks while displaying a broad smile.
“To me it was a meeting with a friend of mine,” Grassi said. “It was a meeting between two friends…who love each other and I admire him deeply. That would have been the end of the story and I wouldn’t have you here sitting in my kitchen if it wasn’t that this lady Kim Davis came out with this information saying she got a private audience with him,” he told the Blade.
Like others who have defended Francis, Grassi said he believes Francis was “fooled” into agreeing to include Davis among the group that he greeted during the Vatican Embassy visit.
Concerning reports that the Pope has been a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage and opposed a same-sex marriage law passed by Argentina’s Congress in 2010, Grassi said he and then Cardinal Bergoglio discussed the gay marriage issue in an email exchange at that time.
“In 2010 when the Congress in Argentina was debating the marriage equality law I read in the news that he had said quite strong and negative things about gay marriage,” Grassi said. “I was extremely surprised when I saw that,” he said. “So I fired an email to him explaining to him how much I owed him, what an important person he was in my life, how much he developed my most progressive thoughts in my life and that I was disappointed to hear that he was saying these negative things about gay people and about gay marriage.”
Added Grassi, “It was a pretty long letter. And I mentioned my boyfriend by name and told him at that time we were 14 years together.”
Bergoglio, less than three years before becoming Pope, responded with a “beautiful reply – a very loving reply,” Grassi said.
“He started by apologizing because he had hurt me, because I was hurt,” said Grassi. “And immediately after that he said I have never said any of those things that the press is publishing about me,” Grassi recalls.
“He said as a matter of fact he never expressed himself about this question. And he ended up by saying something that to me is so important,” said Grassi. “He said believe me, in my pastoral work there is no place for homophobia.”
Some gay activists in Argentina would likely take exception to Francis’s comments to Grassi in that 2010 email. At the time Francis was elected Pope, a prominent Argentinean gay leader told the Blade that media outlets had obtained a copy of a letter that then Cardinal Bergoglio wrote to four Argentine monasteries at the time the national Congress was debating the gay marriage law.
According to media reports, Bergoglio stated in his letter that the proposed law was “the work of the devil,” it would “spark God’s war,” and was a “machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
Grassi moved to the United States in 1978 at a time when a military-run dictatorship was ruling Argentina and persecuting LGBT people. He said he admires gay activists in Argentina and the U.S.
He said one of the reasons he chose to stay in the U.S. rather than live in Europe, where he initially thought he would end up, was the 1978 encounter he had with then-D.C. mayoral candidate Marion Barry at the Dupont Circle gay bar Mr. P’s.
“I was there with some friends and suddenly this tall black guy comes in with a lady and does a speech to the people there on P Street,” Grassi recalls. “So I asked one of my friends, who’s that? And he said he is running for mayor and his name is Marion Barry and that’s his wife.”
“And I remember it was to me the most revealing to think that that there was this country where somebody who was running for mayor would try to get the support of gay people and would actually walk into a gay bar with his wife and ask people for their support and say if you support me I will protect you and I will fight to do positive things for you,” Grassi said.
With that as a backdrop, Grassi said he understands where gay activists are coming from concerning the Pope. But he cautions them about the resistance he says Francis is facing as he deals with a 2,000-year-old institution. He said he believes Francis is making a genuine effort to change the church for the better for LGBT people and other oppressed peoples.
“What I can say is we have to recognize the small steps that Pope Francis has taken and that considering the place where he comes from are actually giant steps,” Grassi said. “It’s not that the man does not want to do it. He has a timing for things. He has a way of saying things that are so extraordinary and making them with small steps.”