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Blessed Virgin of the Immaculate church on Piazza Ungheria in Torvaianica, Italy. (Photo by Andy90 at Italian Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Last week, Pope Francis supported a small transgender community near Rome, some of whose members have been struggling financially due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the small town of Torvaianica, the Rev. Andrea Conocchia has turned his parish into a haven for about 20 transgender women, most of them from Latin America and between the ages of 30 and 50.

It all started two weeks ago, when a trans woman asked Conocchia for help near the entrance to his parish of the Blessed Virgin of the Immaculate. He gifted her food and basic supplies from the care packages of the Catholic charity Caritas. The day after, the woman returned with a friend, and then more and more people, even from nearby towns, came to Conocchia for help.

“What was important to me was the open door of the parish church, and the possibility of welcoming, listening and accepting the person that I had truly and concretely in front of me,” Conocchia told Religion News Service in a phone interview on Thursday (April 30).

Many of the women are sex workers and have been left with no income to pay rent or bills since Italy enacted a national quarantine in early March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the women are HIV positive or have sexually transmitted diseases, the priest said.

With a national ban on public Masses, and therefore church offerings, Conocchia was unable to offer the women enough financial support so he suggested they send a message to Pope Francis asking for help.

Francis showed his support through the papal almoner Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the administrator of the pope’s charitable work, who wired money to the transgender community late last week.

“What a great answer by the Holy Father!” Conocchia said. “It gave us the chance to give concrete help for their needs.”

The priest reached out to the pope knowing his concern for “the most in need, the smallest, the most fragile, who live in the margins, or as the pope says, the most discarded.”

Pope Francis has been welcoming toward transgender people; he met in a private audience with a trans man and his wife in 2015. He also addressed the need to listen, welcome and accompany trans people.

Still, Pope Francis has been criticized by LGBT advocates for his repeated condemnations of “gender theory” and last year, the Vatican Congregation on Education released a document that warned of a sexual anthropology in which “human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.”

“I would say that we treat these [transgender] people as if they were invisible,” Conocchia said. “If the coronavirus had never happened, I might have never met them in person, they might have never asked for help in a church and maybe we wouldn’t have had the chance to dialogue, know each other and share.”

The women sent an audio message to the papal almoner for Pope Francis. “Thank you so much, Pope Francis,” “May God bless you,” “Thank you for everything,” “A thousand blessings,” “May the Virgin protect you,” are but a sample of the recordings sent.

While most of the women are not Catholic, the priest said, some have asked him to pray with them or to bless some of their sentimental objects. He said one knelt before the statue of the Virgin Mary in his parish and prayed the rosary.

In the two weeks of helping the women, Conocchia said he has learned to “not be judgmental, which is important for a man of faith and of the church.”

Getting time with Conocchia is not easy these days. He had to interrupt several calls to tend to the people coming to his parish for help, including two Muslim immigrants from Morocco who asked for some pasta and rice.

“This is a health emergency, but also a social emergency,” the priest said. “Let’s try not to turn it into a human emergency. We must remain human.”

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, the papal almoner seemed surprised the pope’s help for the transgender community had garnered so much attention.

“This is ordinary work for the Church, it’s normal. This is how the Church is a field hospital,” Krajewski said.

“They are really in difficulty because sometimes their passports were taken away by the mafia pimps who control them,” he added.

Conocchia praised Pope Francis for “his attention and sensibility” and the women for “having the courage to ask for help from the parish.” Through these actions, he added, the church “widens” and is able to include and welcome through a focus on the human person.

“This is the heart of the heart of the gospel,” he said. “From the heart of Jesus comes mercy through concrete actions toward every one of us, precisely because we are human beings.”

With reporting from America staff.

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