After undergoing a sex change operation in 2007, Diego Neria Lejérraga, a lifelong Catholic, stopped attending mass because he felt shunned by his fellow parishioners.
“I felt left out. I felt rejected by the church. I felt I was unjustly perceived as something wrong,” Neria, a 48-year-old transgender man from Plasencia, Spain, explains to PEOPLE.
But all of that was forever changed the day Neria answered a phone call from an anonymous number on Dec. 8, 2014 – the voice on the other end of the line said, “I am Pope Francis.”
Neria had written a letter to the beloved pontiff several months earlier in which he described how others’ response to his sex change “had cast a shadow of doubt over my faith.” “I explained how I felt pushed out to the margins of society by the faithful in my local parish of Plasencia after I underwent a sex change. I was even called the ‘hija del diablo’ (daughter of the devil) by a priest in broad daylight.”
But Neria says the pope, who is well-known for his heartfelt cold calls to letter writers, told him he was moved by his story. “We talked for 15 minutes or so and before he hung up, the Holy Father told me that he would ring again to fix a date for a meeting.”
As promised, a few days before Christmas, Francis himself (not an assistant) called again and set the date: January 24, 2015 at Santa Marta, the dorm-style Vatican guesthouse for visiting priests and lay people that the humble pope also calls home.
“My fiancée, Macarena, and I went to meet with him,” Neria says. “He welcomed us with an enormous smile and kind, kind eyes.”
The couple spent more than an hour with the pontiff in the unassuming residence. “We met in a simple hall, rather plain compared to all the grand church interiors we had seen around Rome,” Neria describes. “It made everything feel so much more personal.”
“He is ‘la bondad personificada (kindness made in person).’ There isn’t a second of that visit that I don’t recall,” Neria says, while adding that he doesn’t want to go into too much detail. (“It was a very intimate meeting and I want to remember it that way,” he says.)
“In the presence of Pope Francis you feel loved, respected, embraced. I admired him before visiting, but that was nothing compared to the devotion I have for him now.”
The visit likely won’t be Neria’s last with the pope, who touches down on Sept. 22 for his first-ever trip to the U.S.
“He invited me to visit again and I hope to do so in the near future,” says Neria, who has written a book about his experiences that’s scheduled for release soon.
Neria says that before meeting the pope, his life was “full of doubts.” Though he says his family was very loving and accepting of who he was, he waited to undergo gender reassignment surgery until after his mother’s death, at her request.
He was in his 40s when he finally went under the knife, determined to live life on his own terms. But his environment turned hostile all too quickly and even his local church shunned him: ” ‘How dare you come into our church in your condition? You are not worthy,’ I was told by some of the churchgoers,” recounts Neria.
“I think that God had a moment of forgetfulness with me, but Francis he fixed it. He has become a father to me in the broadest sense of the word. He gave me a safe place where I was able to cry and leave my doubts, pain and suffering behind. I left them all there with the pope. I could tell he was very moved. But I also felt that he didn’t want to cry with me – he appeared to want to give me strength in so doing.”
Now Neria is paying it forward by counseling people with similar problems who have turned to him for advice on “how to overcome all those terrible negative feelings.”
“I just pass on the kindness that Pope Francis showed me. He has changed my life, first in a spiritual sense and subsequently in all other aspects,” Neria says.
“Today, my soul is in peace, thanks to Pope Francis.”
For more on Pope Francis’ private world and visit to America, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday