Pope Francis' remarks that he would not "judge" homosexuals were positively received by gay groups, though the encouragement was tempered by his talk of gay clergy's "sins".
The pontiff, who made his comments as he flew back to Rome from a high-profile trip to Brazil, appeared to be more conciliatory towards homosexuals than his predecessor, Benedict.
Gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign said while his "words do not reflect a shift in church policy, they represent a significant change in tone". "The widespread positive response his words have received around the world reveals Catholics everywhere are thirsty for change," said HRC president Chad Griffin.
A progressive US Catholic group, Catholics United, said Francis' comments "speak to what every young person knows: God loves gay people, and so should the Catholic Church". "This statement on gay people, while largely symbolic, is a big step in the right way," said James Salt, the group's leader.
Italy's first openly gay governor, Nichi Vendola, urged fellow politicians to learn a lesson from the pope. "I believe that if politics had one-millionth of the capacity to ... listen that the pope does, it would be better able to help people who suffer," he said.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press