Pope Francis on Wednesday told a group of parents of LGBT children that God loves them as they are, and that the Church loves them because they are “children of God.”

The pope’s words came during a short, private encounter with some 40 Italian mothers and fathers of LGBT children that took place following his Wednesday general audience.

The parents were members of the Italian Tenda di Gionata (Jonathan’s Tent), an outreach ministry for LGBT Christians and their families. The association also works with pastoral workers who minister to the LGBT community.

The meeting wasn’t announced by the Vatican, but was covered in Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.

Mara Grassi, the vice president of the association, and her husband, Agostino Usai, gave the pontiff a booklet called “Lucky parents,” that was translated into Spanish.

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The book collects several stories of members of the LGBT community and Catholic Church, both positive and negative. They also gave Francis several letters and petitions from gay and transgender Catholics, as well as a t-shirt with the rainbow colors and a quote from the First Epistle of John: “There’s no fear in love.”

Avvenire quotes participants as saying that Francis welcomed them in a “tranquil and cordial way,” and assured them that “the Church does not exclude them because it loves them deeply.”

Grassi told Francis that they wanted to create a “bridge to the Church, so that the Church too can change its way of looking at our children, no longer excluding them but fully welcoming them.”

She later told Avvenire that she’d told the pope that the association seeks to foster dialogue between the Church and the families of LGBT people. According to her account of the meeting, Francis listened to her carefully and then said that the Church loves them.

“We consider ourselves fortunate because we had to change the way that we had always looked at our children,” Grassi said she told the pope. “We found a new way of looking that enabled us to see in them the beauty and love of God.”

The mother of four, the eldest of whom is a gay man in his forties, told the Italian daily La Repubblica that she had experienced “very strong emotions” when meeting with the pope, and acknowledged that for many years after she found out her son was gay she was “like a blind person,” and suffered a lot because “Church rules made me think that he was excluded from the love of God. Nobody helped me.”

Tenda di Gionata is an association founded in 2018, inspired by the work of Father Paolo Cugini, who is noted for his pro-LGBT ministry.

In 2013, Francis signaled a new approach to homosexuality in the Church with his famous declaration that if a person “is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will … Who am I to judge?”

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In 2018, he said that the Church has to find a way to help the parents of gays and lesbians so that they “stand by” their children. He also said he’d advise a parent whose child comes out to pray.

“Do not condemn. Dialogue. Understand. Make space for the son or daughter; make space so they express themselves,” Francis said.

“I would never say that silence is a solution,” he told reporters. “Ignoring a son or daughter with homosexual tendencies is to neglect giving them paternity and maternity.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma