In a startlingly progressive move, the Vatican gave a group of American gay and lesbian Catholics VIP seats at Pope Francis’ weekly general audience on Wednesday.
It then reverted to type by ignoring them, skipping over their inclusion when the Vatican monsignor read out the list of the different groups of pilgrims in attendance in St. Peter's Square.
On the Vatican's list of attendees, the New Ways Ministry pilgrims were only identified as a "group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loretto."
Pope Francis loses his skull cap as he arrives for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
Still, even without the shout-out, New Ways Ministry officials were 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 Loreto, 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."
Sister Jeannine Gramick, left, and Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of Catholic gay rights group New Ways Ministry, pose for a photo in front of St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, after attending Pope Francis' weekly general audience, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
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.