VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican did something it has never done before by giving a group of U.S. gay and lesbian Catholics VIP seats at Pope Francis' weekly general audience Wednesday.
But in a sign that the welcome wasn't all it could have been, the New Ways Ministry pilgrims were only identified on the Vatican's list of attendees as a "group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loretto."
And not even that got announced: When a Vatican monsignor read out the list of the different groups of pilgrims in attendance in St. Peter's Square, he skipped over the group altogether. Francis didn't mention them, either.
Even without a papal shout-out, New Ways Ministry officials were nevertheless pleased that they had been invited to sit up front by Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, the prefect of the papal household who dispenses the coveted reserved tickets for Francis' audiences.
Gaenswein for years has also been the top aide to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. When Benedict headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he permanently prohibited the New Ways Ministry co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick, and the Rev. Robert Nugent, from ministering to gays after determining in 1999 that they didn't sufficiently adhere to church teaching on the "intrinsic evil" of homosexual acts.
Nugent abided by the directive and died last year. Gramick has continued her ministry, changing religious orders to the Sisters of Loretto, and was on hand for Wednesday's audience.
"Pope Francis gives me hope," she told The Associated Press. "To me, this is an example of the kind of willingness he has to welcome those on the fringes of the church back to the center of the church."
The group's executive director, Francis DeBernardo, said New Ways Ministry had tried unsuccessfully under the previous two popes to get VIP seats for its Rome pilgrimages.
This time, the Vatican ambassador in Washington and the archbishop of San Francisco forwarded their requests onto Rome, a sign that Francis' call for the church to be more welcoming to gays has filtered down to local church leaders.
"We didn't get the shout-out, but we were very, very close," DeBernardo said.
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