TORVAIANICA, Italy – Pope Francis’ recent gesture of welcome to transgender Catholics has resonated strongly in this working-class seaside town south of Rome where a community of transgender women has found help and hope thanks to an unusual relationship with the pope forged during the darkest period of the pandemic.
Thanks to the local parish priest, these women visit the Wednesday general audiences with the Franciscans every month, where they receive VIP seats. Every day they receive leaflets with medicine, cash and shampoo. When the Covid-19 epidemic broke out, the Vatican bussed them to its health facility so they could be vaccinated before most Italians.
On Sunday, the women – many of whom are migrants from Latin America and work as prostitutes – joined more than 1,000 other poor and homeless people in the Vatican auditorium as Francis’ guests at a luncheon marking the Catholic Church’s World Day of the Poor.
The menu demonstrated Francis’ belief that those on the margins should be treated with the utmost dignity: for starters, cannelloni pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta; meatballs in tomato-basil sauce and cauliflower puree, and for dessert, tiramisu with petit fours.
For the marginalized transgender community of Torvaianica, it was the latest gesture of integration from the pope, who, in word and deed, has made outreach to the LGBTQ+ community a hallmark of his pontificate.
“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 Lopez, 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 opened to us.”
Francis’ latest initiative was a document from the Vatican’s Doctrinal Office, which stated that in certain circumstances transgender people can be baptized and can be godparents and witnesses at weddings. This followed another recent statement from the pope himself, who suggested that same-sex couples could receive church blessings.
In both cases, the new statements lifted the absolute ban on transgender people serving as godparents issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal office in 2015 and the same-sex blessings announced in 2021.
Prominent LGBTQ+ organizations have welcomed Francis’ message of inclusivity, given that 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 2013 “Who am I to judge” comment about an allegedly gay priest to his January statement that “being homosexual is not a crime,” Francis has evolved his position to increasingly make clear that all – “todos, todos, todos” – he is a child of God, he is loved by God and welcome in the Church.
This non-judgmental position is not necessarily shared by the rest of the Catholic Church. A recent Vatican gathering of bishops and laity, known as a synod, backed away from language explicitly calling for the acceptance of LGBTQ+ Catholics. Conservative Catholics, including cardinals, strongly question his approach.
Following his recent statement on trans participation in church sacraments, GLAAD and DignityUSA said Francis’ inclusive tone would send a signal to political and cultural leaders to end the persecution, exclusion and discrimination of transgender people.
For the transgender community in Torvaianica, it was a more personal message, a concrete sign that the pope knew them, heard their stories and wanted to let them know that they were part of his Church.
Carla Segovia, a 46-year-old Argentinian prostitute, said that for transgender women like her, being a godparent is the closest thing to having a child of her own. She said the new norms made her feel more comfortable, thinking that perhaps one day she would fully return to the faith into which she was baptized but which she left after coming out as trans.
“This norm of Pope Francis brings me closer to finding absolute peace,” she said, which, in her opinion, is necessary for full reconciliation with faith.
Claudia Vittoria Salas, a 55-year-old transgender seamstress and cleaner, said she was already godparent to three of her nieces and nephews at home in Jujuy, northern Argentina. She choked up as she remembered that her earnings from her previous job as a prostitute had enabled her godchildren to attend school.
“Being a godparent is a great responsibility. It’s taking the place of your mother or father. This isn’t a game,” she said as her voice cracked. “You have to choose the right people who will be responsible and capable when the parents are not around, send the children to school and provide them with food and clothes.”
Francis’s unlikely friendship with Torvaianica’s trans community began during Italy’s strict COVID-19 lockdown, when one, then two, then even more prostitutes showed up at the Reverend Andrea Conocchia’s church in the city’s main square, asking for food because he had lost all sources of income.
Over time, Conocchia got to know these women, and as the pandemic and economic hardship continued, he encouraged them to write to Francis asking for what they needed. One evening they were sitting around the table writing letters.
“The pages of the first four letters were flooded with tears,” he recalls. “Why? Because they told me: ‘Father, I am ashamed, I cannot tell the Pope what I have done, how I have lived.’
However, this happened and the first help came from the main alms-giving Pope, who a year later accompanied women after receiving Covid-19 vaccinations. During the pandemic, many women could not legally live in Italy and did not have access to the vaccine.
Finally, Francis asked for a meeting.
Salas was among those who received the vaccine at the Vatican and then joined a group from Torvaianica to thank Francis during the general audience on April 27, 2022. She brought the Argentine pontiff a plate of homemade chicken empanadas, a traditional comfort food shared in their homeland.
Showing a photo of the exchange on her phone, Salas recalled what Francis did next: “He told the gentleman who was receiving the gifts to leave them with him, saying, ‘I’m taking them with me to lunch,'” she said. “At that point I started crying.”
On Sunday, Salas sat at Francis’ table in the Vatican hall. She said she woke up at 3 a.m. to make him more chicken empanadas for dinner. “They are still hot,” she said.
For Canocchia, Francis’ response to Salas and others profoundly changed him as a priest, teaching him the value of listening and paying attention to the lives and hardships of his flock, especially those most marginalized.
For women, it is simply confirmation that they are important.
“At least they remember us, that we are on Earth and not abandoned and at the mercy of the wind,” Torres Lopez said.