A Spanish man denounced by his local priest was given a private audience at the papal residence

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated January 27, 2015 04:15 PM
Franco Origlia/Getty

As word spread that Pope Francis had opened his residence to a transsexual man denounced by his own parish priest, LGBT activists celebrated the papal meeting as powerful help in the fight for acceptance.

Diego Neria Lejérraga of Spain, 48, wrote Francis last year about how, after sex-reassignment surgery, he felt shunned by his local church in Plasencia in western Spain, where a priest denounced him as “the devil’s daughter.”

Francis, known to cold call letter-writers, surprised Lejérraga with a Christmas Eve phone call that was followed up on Saturday with a private meeting of Lejérraga and his fiancée at the Vatican City guesthouse Francis calls home.

Lejérraga told the Spanish newspaper Hoy: “It was a marvelous, intimate and unique experience. What happened in that meeting, what was said, is something that will remain between us, the ones that participated, since this is something I want to live with the utmost intimacy.”

Even without details of that private discussion, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBT Catholics, tells PEOPLE that the fact that it took place is potent symbolism.

“Pope Francis’s papacy has been all about encouraging the church to have personal encounters with those on the margins, and that’s what this meeting was,” says DeBernardo.

The activist says he’s not counting on any swift changes to the Catholic Church’s teachings on questions of LGBT rights, “but the pope’s method seems to be for slow and gradual change and his example is going to encourage other church leaders to seek out and have conversations with transgender individuals and others in the LGBT community.”

“A pope’s influence is more from his personal example than from any doctrinal edits,” DeBernado continues. “That’s why this meeting is very powerful and can really help to bring about a lot of good.”