The directness of Francis' comments suggested that he wants to put the matter of the monsignor behind him, while also setting a new tone of openness as he focuses on his key priority of reforming the Holy See bureaucracy.
Francis was also asked about reports suggesting that a group of gay clergymen exert undue influence on Vatican policy. Italian news media reported this year that the allegations of what they call the "gay lobby" contributed to Benedict's decision to resign.
The term "gay lobby" is bandied about with abandon in the Italian media, and is decidedly vague. Interpretations of what it means have ranged from the benign concept of a group of celibate gay priests who are friends, to a suggestion that a group of sexually active gay priests use blackmail to exert influence on Vatican decision-making.
Stressing that Catholic social teaching calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized, Francis said he would not condone anyone using private information for blackmail or to exert pressure.
"A lot is written about this 'gay lobby. I still haven't found anyone at the Vatican who has 'gay' on his business card," Francis said, chuckling. "You have to distinguish between the fact that someone is gay and the fact of being in a 'lobby.'"
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author and commentator, saw the pope's remarks as a sign of mercy.
"Today Pope Francis has, once again, lived out the Gospel message of compassion for everyone," he said in an emailed statement.
Speaking in Italian with occasional lapses in his native Spanish, Francis dropped a few nuggets of news:
—He said he is thinking of traveling to the Holy Land next year and is considering invitations from Sri Lanka and the Philippines as well.
—The planned Dec. 8 canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will likely be changed — perhaps until the weekend after Easter — because road conditions in December would be dangerously icy for people from John Paul II's native Poland traveling to the ceremony by bus.
—And he solved the mystery that had been circulating since he was pictured boarding the plane to Rio carrying his own black bag, an unusual break from Vatican protocol.
"The keys to the atomic bomb weren't in it," Francis quipped. The bag, he said, contained a razor, a prayer book, his agenda and a book on St. Terese of Lisieux, to whom he is particularly devoted.
"It's normal" to carry a bag when traveling, he said, stressing the style that separates him from other pontiffs, who until a few decades ago were carried around on platforms. "We have to get use to this being normal."
Francis certainly showed a human touch during his trip to Rio, charming the masses at World Youth Day with his decision to forgo typical Vatican security so he could to get close to his flock. Francis traveled without the bulletproof popemobile, using instead a simple Fiat or open-sided car.
"There wasn't a single incident in all of Rio de Janeiro in all of these days and all of this spontaneity," Francis said, responding to concerns raised after his car was swarmed by an adoring mob when it took a wrong turn.
"I could be with the people, embrace them and greet them — without an armored car and instead with the security of trusting the people," he said.
He acknowledged that there is always the chance that a "crazy" person could get to him; John Paul II was shot in 1981. But Francis said he preferred taking a risk than submitting to the "craziness" of putting an armored wall between a shepherd and his flock.
Francis' news conference was remarkable and unprecedented: Pope John Paul II used to have on-board talks with journalists, but he would move about the cabin, chatting with individual reporters so it was hit-or-miss to hear what he said. After Benedict's maiden foreign voyage, the Vatican insisted that reporters submit questions in advance so the theologian pope could choose three or four he wanted to answer with prepared comments.
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