Pope Francis embraces his friend Yayo Grassi, who introduced the head of the Catholic church to his partner.

Behind the hug: Pope Francis and gay man friends from their teacher-student days in Argentina

Yayo Grassi’s phone rang in early September.

“Is this Obdulio?” said the caller, using a nickname given to Grassi 50 years earlier by a high school teacher.

“Who is this?” asked Grassi, spooked.

“Who else calls you ‘Obdulio’?”

“Only one person,” Grassi said, “and I’m not going to talk until you identify yourself.”

“This is Jorge Mario Bergoglio,” said Pope Francis, using his given name, according to Grassi. “I would like to give you a hug when I go to DC.”

Read more: Senior Vatican priest comes out as gay, challenging the ‘paranoia’ of the ‘backwards’ Catholic church

That hug – between the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and a lifelong friend who is gay – came September 23 during the pope’s first visit to the United States. Grassi brought along his boyfriend of nearly two decades, and embraced his former teacher in a sunlit parlour of the Vatican embassy.

The quiet meeting came to light on Friday, after the Vatican – responding to questions about the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, the controversial Kentucky court clerk jailed for refusing to approve same-sex marriage licenses – clarified that hers was only one of many “brief greetings” within a larger audience on his visit to the Vatican’s embassy.
The pope also met Kim Davis, the controversial Kentucky court clerk jailed for refusing to approve same-sex marriage licenses. Photo: AP

“The only real audience granted by the pope at the nunciature,” said the Reverend Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See press office, “was with one of his former students and his family.”

That student was Grassi, 67, and that family was his boyfriend, Iwan Bagus.

The embassy visit was about 15 minutes and consisted mostly of pleasantries.

Grassi and Francis first met in their native Argentina, at Inmaculada Concepcion high school in the city of Santa Fe, where the future pope taught psychology and Argentine literature.

Their friendship grew during the 1964-65 school year when Bergoglio taught Grassi.

“He was an extraordinary teacher and a great mentor,” Grassi said. “He kept pushing my horizons to oblige me to keep looking. He asked me to put on the skin of my fellow man, to feel their pain.”

Grassi’s mother used to cook gnocchi for Bergoglio when he visited the family home in the city of Parana. Grassi, who learned to cook from his mother, has operated his own catering business in Washington since 2005. Before that he was the director of catering for the National Gallery of Art, also in the US capital.

Grassi moved to Washington in 1978 and lost touch with his teacher until 2008, when then-Cardinal Bergoglio granted him an audience in Buenos Aires.

Bergoglio became pope five years later, and Grassi reached out to Francis ahead of his first trip to the US.

The pope said he would like to be able to give Grassi a hug, and the September 23 meeting was arranged.

When news broke this week about Kim Davis’ attendance at the Vatican, Grassi decided to speak out.

“Although I didn’t know any details, I knew immediately that [Francis] had nothing to do with this, that this was arranged by other people without telling him the real character” of Davis, said Grassi.

“I received, from friends of mine, a lot of quite disturbing mail, telling me, ‘This is your pope, look what he did, and he’s a coward.’ And my defence is: ‘We don’t know anything. Just wait until things come out.’ And I’m extremely pleased that I was right. And I never had any doubt that I was right.”