Pope Francis 'gives LGBT Catholics VIP seats'

Pope Francis puts ash on a cardinal's head during the Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in RomeReuters

An American advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Catholics were given front row seats at Pope Francis' address on Ash Wednesday.

The 50 members of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry were seated in the same area as the Pope at the address in St Peter's square yesterday. This is the third pilgrimage they have made, but the first time they have been given this distinction.

When the Pope passed their group they sang 'All Are Welcome', a popular hymn among those calling for an inclusive Church.

"It's really an incredible honour and an incredible step forward for the LGBT community to be recognized," the group's executive director Francis DeBernardo told CNN.

DeBernardo said the group were "basically ignored" on its previous visits under Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. "So not just to be acknowledged, but to be acknowledged in such an honourable way is [good]", he said.

However, the group were not given the private audience with the Pope that they had requested. They were identified on the guest list as a group of lay Catholics, not as pilgrims representing Catholic LGBT community and so were not mentioned when a monsignor listed the various groups of pilgrims present at the service.

Even so, Sister Jeannine Gramick, the group's co-founder told Reuters it was a "sign of movement that's due to the Francis effect."

"What this says is that there is movement in our Church, movement to welcome people from the outside closer to the inside," Gramick said

According to the Religion News Service, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Britain's most senior Catholic bishop, sent an encouraging message to a similar group of LGBT Catholics from the UK, who joined New Ways Ministry in Rome. "Be assured of my prayers for each and every one of you," Nichols wrote. "Have a wonderful pilgrimage. God bless you all."

The Catholic Church's official position on homosexual relationships has not changed under Francis, but there have been signs of a more welcoming approach to the LGBT community. The Pope has also urged the Church not to marginalise the gay community. In 2013 he said "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?"

In keeping with tradition, Pope Francis marked the start of Lent with a procession from Rome's Sant'Anselmo church to the church of Santa Sabina on Aventine Hill, where he led a Mass.

In his homily the pontiff encouraged Catholics to ask God for the "gift of tears" in prayer, the Catholic News Agency reports.

Speaking from the Joel, where he said the prayer of the priests should be accompanied by tears, Francis called Catholics to approach Lent with the same attitude "so as to make our prayer and journey of conversion ever more authentic and without hypocrisy."

Turning also to the Gospel of Matthew, he referred to Jesus' words to his disciples about fasting: he warns them not to "look gloomy" when they fast so that they avoid being like the hypocrites. The Pope said that hypocrites "don't know how to cry. They have forgotten how to cry. They don't ask for the gift of tears."

The suggestion that the New Ways activists were given any special treatment by the Pope has now been refuted by Vatican sources. According to Catholic News Agency (CNA), the seats taken by the group are not considered to be superior, and are available on a first come, first served basis. "The group was treated as any other group of faithful in the square," CNA was told.