VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican is downplaying Pope Francis' controversial meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, saying their encounter "should not be considered a form of support of her position."
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, also said in a statement issued Friday (Oct. 2) that Davis was one of "several dozen" people Francis met at the Vatican Embassy in Washington on Sept. 24 as he prepared to leave for New York, the second leg of his U.S. trip.
One of those meetings, it turns out, was with a gay man, Yayo Grassi, and his partner, who met with the pope at the embassy the day before the Davis meeting, as a YouTube video confirms.
Grassi, a 67-year-old caterer who now lives in Washington, was a student of the pope's years ago in Argentina and has stayed in touch with him.
He told the New York Times that Francis had called him before the pontiff came to the U.S. "and he told me that he would love to give me a hug in Washington.”
Grassi said they met for 15-20 minutes and the meeting was purely personal. “I don’t think he was trying to say anything in particular,” he told the Times. “He was just meeting with his ex-student and a very close friend of his.”
That's not the way Davis and her lawyers described her brief encounter with the pope.
After breaking the news Tuesday night, Davis' camp said the meeting had been requested by the pope and validated Davis' efforts.
That led to days of intense speculation about what really happened, which the Vatican on Friday sought to quell:
"Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope’s characteristic kindness and availability," the Vatican statement said. It added that the "only real audience granted by the pope" at the embassy that day "was with one of his former students and his family.
“The pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi declined to provide any further details when pressed by reporters.
The Rev. Tom Rosica, who assists the Vatican press office with English-language media, said Friday that Vatican staff did not organize the meeting. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Rosica said it might have been an initiative by the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Vigano.
Rosica said that Vatican staff were not sure the pope “knew fully each of the people he was meeting” while greeting people at the nunciature. The priest also said Francis had personally approved Friday's press statement after a meeting with Lombardi on the issue.
The encounter was only made public by Davis' lawyers on Tuesday (Sept. 29).
Davis claimed she embraced Francis, who told her to “stay strong,” and she said the meeting "kind of validates everything" she has been doing.
Her conservative supporters also trumpeted the meeting as a sign that Francis' visit was really intended to support religious freedom claims like the Davis case, in contrast to the pope's repeated public warnings to his bishops not to be culture warriors.
Matt Bowman, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote on the group’s website, "The pope’s amazing private action shows that his public drumbeat on religious freedom was no afterthought. It was at the heart of his mission to the United States."
Davis spent five days in jail in September over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. A conservative Christian, she claimed she could not act contrary to God’s law.
Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, which has been representing Davis, pushed back against the Vatican statements on Friday, saying the pontiff's meeting with Davis and Francis' later statements of support for conscientious objection in a news conference "indicate support" for her claims.
He also said that the meeting "was initiated by the Vatican" and said it was a carefully arranged private encounter Francis, not just one in a series of handshake greetings, as the Vatican seemed to portray it.
Staver added that neither Davis nor the Liberty Counsel ever said the meeting was an endorsement of the specifics of her case.
It still remains unclear, however, who invited Davis and her husband, Joe, to meet with the pope in Washington and why.
Staver on Tuesday told CBS News that the Vatican contacted him a few days before the pope was to arrive on his first visit to the U.S., because Francis had been following Davis’ saga “and obviously is very concerned about religious freedom not just in the United States but worldwide.”
Despite the blanket media coverage of every move the pope made during his visit, which ended Sunday night, Staver said he worked with church officials to sneak Davis and her husband, Joe, into the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where Francis was staying. He even counseled her to change her hairstyle to avoid notice.
The meeting took place about 2:30 p.m., Staver said, and lasted between 10 and 15 minutes.
According to Inside the Vatican magazine, which first broke the story, the Argentine pope spoke in English with Davis and her husband, alone and without an interpreter or aides. Staver said he was not present either.
Davis told the magazine that Francis said to her, “Thank you for your courage” and they exchanged hugs.
“It was an extraordinary moment. ‘Stay strong,’ he said to me. Then he gave me a rosary as a gift, and he gave one also to my husband, Joe. I broke into tears. I was deeply moved.
“Then he said to me, ‘Please pray for me.’ And I said to him, ‘Please pray for me also, Holy Father.’ And he assured me that he would pray for me.”
Inside the Vatican Editor-in-Chief Robert Moynihan, who has covered the Vatican for years, said Davis recounted the meeting to him shortly after it took place.
Other sources have said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has not embraced Davis' cause, as many conservative Christians and activists have, was not involved in the invitation and may have tried to thwart it.
(David Gibson contributed to this report from New York.)
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