A gay friend of Pope Francis who lives in D.C. on Tuesday said his public endorsement of civil unions for same-sex couples was not a surprise.
“I was not surprised at all,” Yayo Grassi told the Washington Blade during an exclusive telephone interview. “To me it was like a natural consequence of the things that he’s done.”
Francis spoke about civil unions in “Francesco,” a documentary about his life. It debuted on Oct. 21 at the Rome Film Festival.
Grassi told the Blade that Francis’ comments represent a “seismic movement within the church, but it also started with a very gentle wave” in 2013 when he said gay men and lesbians should not be judged or marginalized.
“Several years ago, something like that was almost seen like a tsunami,” said Grassi. “Now we see that it really was just a gentle wave, that the tsunamis are coming little by little, that every wave that he sends out makes this movement much, much greater and difficult to walk back.”
Pope was Grassi’s high school teacher in Argentina
Francis was Grassi’s teacher at a Roman Catholic high school in the Argentine city of Santa Fe in the mid-1960s. Francis—then known as Jorge Bergoglio—in 1998 became the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Grassi and his partner in 2015 met with Francis when he was in D.C. Grassi told the Blade that he had another meeting with Francis at his office in Buenos Aires in 2008, two years before Argentine lawmakers approved a law that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Grassi said he asked Francis about it.
“He said it is not a religious law that is being debated, it is a civil law so therefore the church has nothing to do with it,” Grassi told the Blade.
“That was when he told me that you’re coming here and I know you,” he added. “We have been friends for so long. Who am I to judge you? Why would I judge you?”
Esteban Paulón, an activist in Argentina who has sharply criticized Francis over LGBTQ issues, last week told the Blade the pope “in private expressed his support” for civil unions for same-sex couples during the country’s marriage equality debate. Grassi said Francis told him in a 2010 letter that he did not make inflammatory comments about the marriage bill that Argentine media reports attributed to him.
“When I talked about the war of God, you know it was taken out of context,” wrote Francis, according to Grassi. “Those are words from the Bible when Moses said to the people, let’s not fight this war. This is the war of God. It’s like you know God is going to fight for us. It wasn’t so.”
Grassi told the Blade that Francis at the end of his letter told him he “can be absolutely sure that in my diocese there is no place for homophobia.”
‘Very difficult to change an institution that is over 2,000 years old’
Francis’ support of civil unions is the latest indication of the Vatican’s more moderate tone towards LGBTQ-specific issues under his papacy. Church teachings on homosexuality and gender identity have nevertheless not changed.
“It is very difficult to change an institution that is over 2,000 years old,” said Grassi.
Grassi said Francis’ comments were nevertheless “an affirmation of everything that I know about him.” Grassi also acknowledged that some of his friends said they were “not enough” and Francis “is somehow cementing the fact that okay, unions are fine. Marriage is not.”
“Obviously he can’t say that,” said Grassi. “It is impossible for the pope … it’s (not) like the pope will go out and say I support abortion or I support the death penalty. Those are things that are so extreme (within) the church that it is going to be difficult for him to say it.”
“I don’t think he would ever say it,” he added.
Grassi told the Blade that Francis with his civil union comments “gave” countries “permission to oppose gay marriage with this statement.” Grassi added marriage equality efforts in the U.S., Argentina and other countries began with civil unions for same-sex couples.
“If a country takes his words and decides to establish civil unions … we know that sooner or later that is going to change,” he said.