TORVAIANICA, Italy — Pope Francis’ recent gesture welcoming transgender Catholics has resonated strongly in a working-class coastal town south of Rome, where a community of trans women has found help and hope through a remarkable relationship with the pontiff forged during the darkest moments. times of the pandemic.
Thanks to the local priest, these women now visit Francis’ monthly general audiences on Wednesdays, where they are assigned VIP seats. On any given day they receive deliveries of medicine, cash and shampoo. When COVID-19 hit, the Vatican bused them to its health facilities so they could get vaccinated before most Italians.
On Sunday, these women, many of whom are Latin American immigrants and work as prostitutes, will join more than 1,000 poor and homeless people in the Vatican auditorium as guests of Francis at a luncheon to mark World Day of the Poor. the Catholic Church. For Torvaianica’s marginalized trans community, it is just the latest gesture of inclusion from a Pope who has made reaching out to the LGBTQ+ community a hallmark of his papacy, in word and deed.
“Before the church was closed to us. They didn’t see us as normal people, they saw us as the devil,” said Andrea Paola Torres López, a Colombian transgender woman known as Consuelo, whose kitchen is decorated with images of Jesus. “Then Pope Francis arrived and the doors of the church were opened to us.”
Francis’ latest initiative was a document from the Vatican’s doctrine office that states that, under some circumstances, transgender people can be baptized and serve as godparents and witnesses at weddings. This followed another recent statement from the Pope himself suggesting that same-sex couples could receive blessings from the church.
In both cases, the new pronouncements overturned outright bans on transgender people serving as godparents issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal office in 2015, and on same-sex blessings announced in 2021.
Prominent LGBTQ+ organizations have welcomed Francis’ message of inclusion, as gay and transgender people have long felt excluded and discriminated against by a church that officially teaches that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”
From his famous “Who am I to judge” comment in 2013 about an allegedly gay priest, to his statement in January that “being homosexual is not a crime,” Francis has evolved his position to make it increasingly clear that everyone – “everyone, everyone, everyone” — he is a child of God, he is loved by God and welcome in the church.
That judgment-free position is not necessarily shared by the rest of the Catholic Church. The Vatican’s recent gathering of bishops and lay people, known as a synod, backed away from language that explicitly called for welcoming LGBTQ+ Catholics. Conservative Catholics, including cardinals, have strongly questioned his approach. And a 2022 Pew Research Center analysis showed that a majority of American Catholics, or 62%, believe that whether a person is male or female is determined by the sex assigned at birth, while only a minority, 37%, do. , said it can change.
Following his latest statement on trans participation in church sacraments, GLAAD and DignityUSA said Francis’ inclusive tone would send a message to political and cultural leaders to end their persecution, exclusion and discrimination against people transgender.
For the trans community of Torvaianica, it was a more personal message, a concrete sign that the Pope knew them, had heard their stories and wanted to let them know that they were part of his church.
Carla Segovia, a 46-year-old Argentine sex worker, said that for transgender women like her, being a godmother is the closest they will get to having a child of their own. She said the new rules made her feel more comfortable with the possibility that she might one day fully return to the faith in which she was baptized but which she abandoned after coming out as trans.
“This norm of Pope Francis brings me closer to finding that absolute serenity,” he said, which he considers necessary to fully reconcile with faith.
Claudia Vittoria Salas, a 55-year-old transgender tailor and house cleaner, said she had already been godmother to three of her nephews and nieces in Jujuy, northern Argentina. A lump formed in her throat as she remembered that the income from her former job as a prostitute allowed her godchildren to go to school.
“Being a godfather is a great responsibility, it is taking the place of the mother or father, it is not a game,” he said with a broken voice. “You have to choose the right people who are responsible and capable, when parents are not present, of sending children to school and providing them with food and clothing.”
Francis’ unusual friendship with the trans community of Torvaianica began during Italy’s strict COVID-19 lockdown, when one, then two, then more sex workers showed up at the church of the Reverend Andrea Conocchia, in the main square of the city, begging for food, because he had lost all sources of income.
Over time, Canocchia got to know the women and, as the pandemic and economic difficulties continued, encouraged them to write to Francis to ask for what they needed. One night they sat around a table and wrote their letters.
“The pages of the letters of the first four were wet with tears,” he recalled. “Why? Because they told me ‘Father, I am ashamed, I cannot tell the Pope what I have done, how I have lived.'”
But they did, and the first help came from the Pope’s main alms donor, who then accompanied the women to receive their COVID-19 vaccines a year later. At the time of the pandemic, many of the women were not allowed to live legally in Italy and did not have access to the vaccine.
Finally, Francisco asked to meet with them.
Salas was among those who took the hit at the Vatican and later joined a group from Torvaianica to thank Francis at his general audience on April 27, 2022. He brought the Argentine pope a platter of homemade chicken empanadas, a meal traditional comfort of their shared community. homeland.
Showing the photo of the exchange on his phone, Salas recalled what Francisco did next: “He told the man who receives the gifts to leave them for him, telling him ‘I’ll take them for lunch,’” he said. “At that moment I started crying.”
For Canocchia, Francis’ response to Salas and the others has profoundly changed him as a priest, teaching him the value of listening and being attentive to the lives and difficulties of his flock, especially the most marginalized.
For women, it is simply a recognition that they matter.
“At least they remember us, that we are on Earth and we have not been abandoned and left at the mercy of the wind,” Torres López said.