LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky clerk Kim Davis met briefly with Pope Francis during his historic U.S. visit, an encounter she said validates her crusade against gay marriage.
"He held out his hand to her and she grasped his hand," her attorney, Mat Staver, told The Associated Press. "He asked her to pray for him and she said she would; she asked the pope to pray for her, and he said he would."
The Vatican essentially confirmed the meeting: The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, given the opportunity to deny it took place, declined to do so and said merely that he would have no comment.
Staver said a Vatican photographer was present and that he expected the pictures to become public. But the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said the meeting was private and that no photos would be released.
Davis, an Apostolic Christian, became a protagonist in America's divisive culture wars when she defied the federal courts by refusing to license same-sex marriages, and spent five days in jail for contempt until some of her deputies agreed to issue them without her.
Staver said Davis and her husband met with Francis alone for less than 15 minutes at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Staver would not say who initiated the meeting with the pope or how it came to be, though he did say that Vatican officials had inquired about Davis' situation while she was in jail. He declined to name them.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, referred questions back to the Vatican.
"It was really very humbling to even think that he would want to meet me or know me," Davis told ABC News. "Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we're doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything."
Davis was in Washington for the Values Voter Summit, where the Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage, presented her with an award, and where Davis said she was switching to the Republican party because she feels abandoned by Democrats.
The pope has strongly upheld church teaching that a marriage is between a man and woman, but he didn't emphasize that teaching during his trip because he wanted to offer a "positive" message about families to America, Lombardi told reporters.
While he repeatedly endorsed religious freedoms, some of his calls to action have been interpreted as a repudiation of Davis' insistence on keeping her job even as she refuses to issue marriage licenses, in defiance of the Supreme Court's ruling that effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide.
None of his public statements appeared to endorse a right to impose an individual's conscience on other people. Speaking to Congress, he said "it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others."
On his flight back to the Vatican, reporters pressed Francis to declare if he supports government officials who say they can't abide by some laws requiring them to issue marriage-licenses to same-sex couples. The pope didn't mention Davis and said he can't know the details of such cases, but in general, he defended conscientious objection as a human right.
"It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," Francis said.
Staver said the pope thanked Davis for her courage, told her to "stay strong" and hugged her. He personally blessed two rosaries and presented one to Davis and one to her husband, Staver said.
Davis' parents are lifelong Catholics and she gave them the rosaries. Her father said if he lives to be 200 he will never receive a better gift, Staver said.
"It was very encouraging, she was very moved by his kindness, his gentleness and his caring spirit," Staver said. "She was just overwhelmed by the meeting, humbled by it. There's not a lot of words to describe that feeling."
Davis, who has been divorced three times, said she was saved from sin four years ago while attending church at her dying mother-in-law's request, and has been a devout Christian ever since. She said she could never reconcile issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples with her faith, but meanwhile has refused to resign.
She was released from jail with strict instructions from the judge not to interfere with her deputies, but then altered the marriage license to remove her name and county, replacing it with the phrase, "pursuant to federal court order."
Attorneys for the couples who sued her questioned the validity of the licenses, and asked the judge to order her to reissue them or consider punishing her again. That request is pending.
"He told me before he left, he said 'stay strong," Davis told ABC. "I've weighed the cost," she added, "and I'm prepared to do whatever it takes."
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.