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Rumbles of Change in the Vatican: Pope Signals Openness to Gay Priests

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"

As they settled into their seats on the Alitalia jet, the assembled members of the  Vatican press corps might not have expected a great deal from the journey home.

They had just followed the Catholic church's first Latin American pope on a meet and greet around Brazil. They had seen his Fiat Idea mobbed by weeping fans. They had watched him celebrate mass with  three million pilgrims on the packed-out shores of Copacabana beach. What, they may have wondered, could top  that?

Sometime after take-off, however,  Pope Francis strolled to the back of the aircraft and gave them their answer. The in-flight entertainment, it turned out, would be him: a no-holds-barred press conference that lasted for an hour and 20 minutes and was the first of its kind to take place on a papal plane since the early days of a vigorous John Paul II.

"The atmosphere was one of near incredulity," said John L Allen, a veteran Vatican observer for the National Catholic Reporter, who was on board the flight. "We haven't seen something like this for 20 years."

In the course of his first real press conference, a free-wheeling session in which the pope answered all the questions thrown at him and even thanked a journalist who asked him about a recent sex scandal, Francis signalled a readiness to address the serious issues of the church – albeit in a light-hearted manner.

Asked about reports of a " gay lobby" inside the Roman curia, he replied: "I have still not seen anyone in the Vatican with an identity card saying they are gay."

He struck a markedly more conciliatory tone towards homosexuality than his predecessor, saying: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge? The catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they should not be marginalised because of this [orientation] but that they must be integrated into society."

That catechism however, also teaches that, "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered". Francis said nothing that would appear to counter that, although some observers said his remarks set him apart from Benedict, who said that men with deep-seated tendencies should not enter the priesthood.

Francis seemed to disagree: "The problem is not having this [homosexual] orientation. We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem."

Francis also used the word "gay" rather than "homosexual", which his predecessors preferred.

Speaking for the first time as pope on the issue of women's ordination, Francis said that although that particular door was "closed", the church should find ways to boost women's "role and charism [divinely bestowed gifts]".

He joked about Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a prelate alleged to have tried to fly €20m in cash into Italy illegally, saying he "didn't go to jail because he resembled a saint".

Francis also dismissed sinister whisperings about his relationship with his predecessor, describing living with Benedict in the Vatican as "like having … a wise grandfather living at home". Asked what was in the famous  black briefcase he clutched while boarding the plane last week, Francis was happy to clarify: "The keys to the atomic bomb weren't in it." His razor, prayer book, agenda and a book on Saint Thérèse of Lisieux were.

The pope's comments on the gay lobby came after an  Italian magazine published a report claiming that the prelate whom Francis chose to be his "eyes and ears" in the Vatican bank had lived all-but-publicly with his gay lover in Uruguay.

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