By Oriana Boselli, Antonio Denti and Philip Pullella
TORVAIANICA, Italy/VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The run-down beach town of Torvaianica is about 35 kms (20 miles) south of the Vatican.
But for transgender women who live there it had seemed light years away until a rapprochement with the Catholic Church that began during the COVID-19 lockdown and led to an invitation to have lunch with Pope Francis on Sunday.
Claudia Victoria Salas, 55, and Carla Segovia, 46, both Argentinian, were in a group of transgender people, among about 1,200 poor and homeless people, who attended the lunch on the Church’s World Day of the poor.
To her surprise, Salas, a former sex worker, found herself seated opposite the pope, who is also Argentinian, at the main table in the auditorium, where the pontiff holds his general audiences in winter.
“We transgenders here in Italy feel a bit more human because the fact that Pope Francis brings us closer to the Church is a beautiful thing,” Carla Segovia, 46, a sex worker, said earlier this week on the deserted windy beach of Torvaianica.
“Because we need some love,” she said.
Last week, the Vatican’s doctrinal office issued a statement saying transgender people can be godparents at Roman Catholic baptisms, witnesses at religious weddings and receive baptism themselves.
LGBT rights advocates in the church welcomed the move while conservatives condemned it, accusing Francis of sending confusing signals about sexual morality to the faithful.
Francis, 86, has tried to make the Church more welcoming to the LGBT community without changing Church teachings, including one saying that same-sex attraction is not sinful but same-sex acts are.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Andrea Conocchia, the pastor of the Blessed Immaculate Virgin parish in Torvaianica helped the transgender community with food and other assistance.
Parish resources were stretched at the time because many people were cut off from income, so Conocchia asked for help from the cardinal who runs the pope’s charities.
As well as sending money, the cardinal arranged for them to have COVID vaccinations in the Vatican and to meet the pope.
“For us, he is our saint,” Salas said of Conocchia last week.
On Sunday, Conocchia arrived at the Vatican on a bus with about 50 poor from his parish, including transgender people, both foreign born and Italian.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for all of us transsexuals,” Segovia said, as she entered the auditorium. “I send the pope a big kiss”.
(Writing by Philip Pullella; editing by Barbara Lewis)