Vatican City: Some say his trip last week to Brazil, capped by a Mass for 3 million on Copacabana Beach, and the 80-minute, unfiltered news conference on the plane back to Rome, were the real start of Pope Francis`s pontificate.
During the flight, he fielded 21 questions on subjects ranging from scandals at the Vatican bank to women in the Church to why he carries his own briefcase. But perhaps the comments that revealed most about the type of Church he envisions came in response to a question about gays in the Vatican.
"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" he said, pointing out that the Church`s Catechism says homosexuals should not be marginalised, and should be treated with respect and integrated into society.
It was the first time any pope had uttered the word `gay` in public - using it five times - and was another sign that he has his ear closer to the ground than his predecessor Benedict, whom he succeeded as head of the world`s 1.2 billion Catholics in March.
It also chimed with the Church precept of "loving the sinner and hating the sin", a notion not always evident in Benedict`s pronouncements; a 2005 document he approved said homosexual tendencies were "objectively disordered", and in a 2010 book he described homosexuality as "one of the miseries" of the Church.
"`Who am I to judge` may end up being the most-quoted five words spoken by a modern pope," said John Thavis, author of the best-selling book The Vatican Diaries and who covered the Vatican for 30 years for the U.S.-based Catholic News Service.
"Pope Francis has realised the simple truth, that when the Church preaches on pelvic and political issues like birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage, many people stop listening. So instead of repeating the rules and revving up the `culture of death` rhetoric, he`s focusing on another essential side of Christianity, mercy and compassion. And of course, that`s much more inviting," Thavis said.
Much the same point was made by a senior Vatican official, who asked not to be named.
"What is the benefit of hammering on about issues where the position is already well known, either embraced or not?" he said.
"What is the immediate association we want in people`s minds when the Catholic Church is mentioned? A stern governess, or one who teaches the same values by being approachable, kind, understanding and patient?"