ROSARIO, Argentina— Marking an historical first in Pope Francis’s home country, the Diocese of San Luis in northern Argentina invited a transgender woman Tuesday to read one of the prayer intentions at a public Mass celebrated by the local bishop.

The invitation was issued to Francia López by civil officials to recognize the work she does among the city’s poorer, daily feeding 400 people from a soup kitchen she runs. It came without the advance knowledge of the new bishop, Gabriel Barba, who took over the diocese July 11, and who chose a small village outside of the diocesan metropolitan area to celebrate his first Mass. Due to COVID-19 restrictions as well as the small size of the town, there were only a few souls in attendance in that first liturgy: on a good day, no more than 100 people live in San José del Morro.

At the end of Tuesday’s Mass, López told the media she saw the invitation as a “historic moment” and regarded it as “very hopeful, because it will allow us to build a Church as human beings, where the life options of diverse families have always encountered many obstacles to living their spiritual life.”

“The bishop’s message was so pastoral, with his gaze fixed on the poor,” López emphasized, adding that this constitutes “true hope.”

“We need to be able to baptize our children, to count on the word of the shepherds in the face of death and not continue to make children pay for decisions of which they are not part,” said López, a professor of Legal and Accounting Sciences who is a school director, and a conductor of a radio program in a local station.

López praised the bishop, saying that her role during the Mass allowed her to “value” the Church to the which she belongs “by family mandate,” as a “place of inclusion and love of neighbor.”

Though Barba took much of the credit – and the heat – for having a transgender woman read an intention, Sister Monica Astorga, a friend of Pope Francis who for decades has ministered to transgender women in southern Argentina, told Crux that he actually didn’t know about it beforehand.

“I talk a lot with the bishop there, so when I saw the news, I sent him a note saying ‘great,’” she said Thursday by telephone. When Barba was the bishop of his previous diocese, Astorga said, she put him in touch with a local family that has a transgender girl, and the bishop “accompanied them a lot.”

The sister said the bishop didn’t know Lopez is transgendered before the Mass, and his gut reaction was that it was too early in his term in San Luis for such a controversial gesture. The diocese is known as being one of the most conservative in Argentina, where even including a guitar accompanying the choir at the Mass and allowing for applause at the end of the ceremony were considered sensitive.

Once Barba learned of the invitation, Astorga said, he didn’t object, and he might have issued one himself eventually. He was concerned that including a transgender woman would be seen as a too big a step, too soon, she said, but Astorga said she reassured him.

“I told him that perhaps all this internal church fighting, all these criticisms, are something superficial,” she said, adding that the question is “how it’s impacted the trans community.”

The news of Lopez reading at Mass spread was shared in several social media groups that Astorga monitors.

“The news generated a lot of joy,” she said. “I told the bishop he should see it as something God allowed. Now the trans community of San Luis, at least, know that they can go into the cathedral church and pray, because someone who’s like them was allowed to read during such an important Mass.”

Father James Martin, editor at large of America Magazine and known for his outreach towards LGBTQ Catholics in the United States, applauded the news of Barba inviting López.

“It’s essential to include all the faithful in the Prayers of the Faithful, and that includes LGBTQ people,” he told Crux. “That means we pray for their needs and we also invite them to pray. Bishop Barba was acting as a true pastor in welcoming a transgender woman to pray in the cathedral.”

Martin, who last year met with Pope Francis in the Vatican, when the pope reportedly encouraged him to continue with his ministry, said López is “a child of God, a baptized Catholic, and a full member of the church. And for anyone who doubts this: it is surely not a sin simply to be a transgender person.”

Yet not everyone saw the news as positive. A well-known conservative Catholic outlet, InfoCatolica, published an article that’s drawn more than 50 comments, most negative, attacking the bishop, blaming the pope and condemning López.

“We are all sinners, but sin must not be defended and propagated,” one commenter wrote. “It is quite regrettable and painful that the priest” can bless “mortal sin in the person of monstrous and unhappy transsexuals.”

Another user, who identified herself as “Lourdes,” wrote that perversion comes from the Devil and all those who sin against God and take Holy Communion “eat their own condemnation.”

Several called the bishop and others in attendance “heretics,” “apostates” and “blasphemers.”

Pope Francis sent a letter in which he expressed his closeness to the diocese, written before news of López’s participation in the Mass.

“The festivities are a meeting between the holy faithful people of God, the bishop and the patron saint,” Francis wrote. “All come together on this day to meet the Lord, in a feast of prayer and joy, of peace and hope. I bless you and all the holy faithful people of God who will celebrate the patron saint festivities, and I ask the Virgin and Saint Louis the king, pilgrim, to take care of you during your path.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma