“God loves all his children, however they are; you are a son of God, who accepts you exactly as you are. Of course you are a son of the Church!”
These were Pope Francis’s words in a telephone call last year to Diego Neria Lejárraga, a 48-year-old Spanish man who had undergone gender reassignment surgery, when the Pope invited him together with his fiancée to meet him at the Vatican.
The meeting took place last Saturday in the Casa Santa Marta, according to Sr. Neria. The Vatican has neither confirmed or denied it, saying it is the policy not to comment on the Pope’s private meetings. But it is clear that it happened.
Neria, a practicing Catholic from Plasencia, a small town in Cáceres in Estremadura, says he has suffered from rejection by some of his fellow parishioners over the years since his operation eight years ago — although his bishop has always been supportive.
He took the decision to have the surgery at the age of 40, after his mother died, in order to achieve a physical congruency with the gender he had always known he was. Some months ago, he wrote to Pope Francis, giving examples of how he had been criticized and spurned by what he calls “the most conservative members” of his parish. Many transgender people suffer stigmatisation and isolation, and are prone to suicide.
By the age of 3 or 4 years old, most children have a clear sense of their gender, which in 19,999 people out of 20,000 matches their chromosomally determined biological sex. A person’s self-perception of gender relates to anatomical and functional differences in the brains of men and women; trans people however have brains that are the opposite of what their biological sex would suggest. According to Dr Samuel James Hall, consultant aneasthetist at Royal Sussex County Hospital, “the mismatch is rare but real, occurs early in embryonic development, and is usually clearly expressed in childhood. Causes are not yet understood.”
On 8 December last year, Diego Neria received a call from the Pope to tell him that he was loved by God and to ask him to come to meet him in Rome. Francis insisted that he and his fiancée, Macarena, come at the weekend because during the week Diego worked as a clerk.
Promising to call later to fix the date, the Pope telephoned again on 20 December. “I have a gap on 24 January at five in the afternoon. Can you both come then?”
Neria says Francis told him not to worry if he couldn’t afford the ticket. “If you have no money, when you’re both here I’ll give you an envelope to cover your expenses, that’s no problem. You know I live with other priests in the Santa Marta guesthouse. When you get here, tell the Swiss Guards you have a meeting with me, and that’s it.”
Neria will not discuss the meeting itself, insisting it was private. But he told Hoy newspaper that it was a “marvellous, unique and intimate” experience.
“It’s not that I was angry with the Church beforehand,” Neria told El Mundo. “But there were attitudes often expressed that I didn’t like. But not from everyone, because the bishop has always been very good to me, and I’ve been well supported by him. But it’s been hard at times.”