VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis on Monday gave a high-profile private audience to a prominent American Jesuit priest who has been attacked repeatedly by conservative Catholics and media outlets for ministering to homosexuals.By meeting Father James Martin during the morning, when the pope's meetings are part of his published schedule, instead of privately in the afternoon, Francis appeared to be defending Martin pointedly from the attacks.In the last two years, a number of Catholic seminaries and universities have canceled lectures and appearances by Martin, often after pressure from conservative groups.Martin, a Jesuit like the pope, is the author of the 2017 book "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity."In a Tweet after meeting the pope, Martin said he "shared with him the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide. I was so grateful to meet with this wonderful pastor."Describing the meeting as one of the highlights of his life, Martin said he felt "encouraged, consoled and inspired" and that the 30-minute audience was "a clear sign of (the pope's) deep pastoral care for LGBT Catholics and LGBT people."Rorate Caeli, one of the conservative blogs that has often criticized Martin, Tweeted after the audience was made public: "It's the feast of St. Gay Rome." In another Tweet, Rorate Caeli said: "If that's not an endorsement, nothing is."Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which calls for reconciliation between the Church and gays, praised the pope.DeBernardo said in a statement that the meeting "refutes the unjustified barrage of criticism he has received from a minority of Church leaders and other anti-LGBTQ sectors of the Church."He called it "a clear signal that Pope Francis is calling the Church to conversion away from the negative messages it has sent in the past about LGBTQ people. It is a day of celebration for LGBTQ Catholics who have longed for an outstretched hand of welcome from the Church that they love."The Church teaches that homosexuals should be respected and their human dignity must be defended. It teaches that same-sex attractions are not sinful but homosexual acts are.