Pope Francis reached out an olive branch to the gay community Monday, saying that he won't "judge" gay priests.
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" the pope said.
The pope's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, authored a document that said men with homosexual orientations should not be priests. Francis is softening that position, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven.
The pope was speaking to reporters on an overnight flight as he returned to Rome from a week-long trip to Brazil. The Wall Street Journal reported that Francis discussed the issue after a reporter asked about a report in an Italian magazine purporting that a Vatican monsignor named Battista Ricca engaged in gay sexual relationships years ago while living in Latin America.
Ricca has not commented on the report. The pope said a preliminary Vatican investigation of Ricca had found no wrongdoing.
Francis was also asked about Italian media reports suggesting that a group within the church tried to blackmail fellow church officials with evidence of their homosexual activities. Italian media reported this year that the allegations contributed to Benedict's decision to resign.
While stressing Catholic social teaching that calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized, Francis said it was something else entirely to conspire to use private information for blackmail or to exert pressure.
The pope was wrapping up the first foreign trip of his papacy, a trip centered around World Youth Day, where he urged young people to build a better world and construct an inclusive "civilization of love."
"The Gospel is for everyone, not just for some," Francis said while celebrating Mass for more than 3 million Catholics crowding Copacabana beach. "Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away."
In the nearly week-long trip to Brazil, the pope put forward his priorities: showing solidarity with the poor, getting priests out of their parishes and closer to the people, and re-evangelizing regions where Catholics have abandoned the church.
World Youth Day is a gathering of young Catholics every two or three years started by Pope John Paul II in 1987. In Brazil, he addressed event volunteers - mostly young people - in central Rio, where he spoke of traditional values and challenged them to be "revolutionary," "go against the current," and "rebel against this culture of the provisional."