The gospel and the pope’s gay friend

Pope Francis meets with his former student, Yayo Grassi, left, and his partner, Iwan Bagus.
Pope Francis meets with his former student, Yayo Grassi, left, and his partner, Iwan Bagus.

Friendship transcends the limits of human reason. It also transcends differences, because it creates an intimate connection between souls that share values such as honesty and elevated ideals.

This is one of the precious lessons Pope Francis taught us, even if unexpectedly, when during his September visit to the United States he granted only one real and private audience.

Who was the surprising recipient of this great honor? An openly gay man, the Holy Father’s former high school student with whom he has remained friends. Yayo Grassi is what many would consider a stray lamb from the flock; but one whom the pope protects, with pastoral zeal and social sensitivity, through the lonely pastures of worldly segregation and animosity. He does so retracing the steps and message of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

In the Vatican Embassy in Washington, Francis warmly embraced Grassi and his Indonesian partner. The quivering hug between the head of the universal Catholic Church and these men redeemed the silent grief of many who, through their painful exclusion, seek the respect and acknowledgment of their human dignity. The pontiff does not condemn these men.

Grassi, 67, is a goodhearted man who does not define himself by his sexual orientation, but by his integrity. He laughs, cries, sleeps; he works at his own business, he has friends and relatives.

He received his formal education from Jesuit priests at a school in Santa Fe, Argentina. This is the school where in the early 1960s Jorge Mario Bergoglio was his literature and psychology teacher — the future pope, and the first from Latin America.

“I am fortunate to have known Father Bergoglio, or Carucha, as he was nicknamed by the students,” Grassi told me during a recent telephone conversation.

“To be taught and guided by him for two years, and to later turn that relationship into a friendship that would bring me to this juncture, is amazing.”

But how did their friendship evolve? One day Grassi’s mother, Amalia, invited Bergoglio to their home for dinner and asked about his favorite dish: “Gnocchi,” replied the priest. That became the first of many shared memories.

By 1978, Grassi had immigrated to the United States, where hard work, sacrifice, perseverance and a deep drive toward self-improvement propelled him to professional success. He started out as a worker in the catering industry and eventually became director of catering at the National Gallery of Art. A decade ago, he launched his own company.

When he heard that Pope Francis was coming to Washington, D.C., he requested a meeting through the Vatican and waited. To his surprise, he received a telephone call three weeks before the pope’s visit — Francis wanted to give him a hug.

“You're crazy to make the time to see us,” Grassi told his former teacher during their emotional meeting, captured on video. “No, by God! Thank you for coming!” Francis replied.

This episode of tolerance and respect was a reflection of authentic Christian values, the values of the Gospel.

It was only later, addressing reports that Pope Francis had met privately with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, that the Holy See disclosed that the pontiff gave only one “real audience” to “one of his former students and his family.”

“My encounter with the pope was a meeting between old friends,” Grassi said. “It was my intention to share the details of our meeting exclusively with close friends. But then, this happened, and I realized that I had the opportunity to explain and shed light on the actions of this pope, who has done so much to open up the church to all those who are willing to hear his message.”

Francis once again made space under his miter for everyone. He affirmed the bonds of friendship, benevolence and mutual trust with a man with whom he has maintained an honest rapport, despite the tension caused by dogmatic issues about gays and the Catholic Church.

The message is simple yet powerful: If your friends are good people, you accept them and love them as they are. This is the example that a loving God has taught us and expects all of us to emulate.

Daniel Shoer Roth, an el Nuevo Herald columnist, writes about spirituality and values.