By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - 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 marginalized, 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 realized 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?"
It's about "putting people before dogma", said Paul Vallely, author of "Pope Francis - Untying the Knots".
It's also about changing perceptions, without moving on substance.
"Pope Francis clearly wants to change the image of the Church from that of a top-down organization that issues edicts and runs by rules to a more populist model of a Church of evangelizers," said David Gibson, a U.S.-based Catholic author of several books who once worked at the Vatican.
"In viewing all people as sinners - like himself, as he notes - and making no distinctions but stressing the pursuit of holiness and doing good, Francis is very much in line with where Catholics in the pews tend to be, and their clergy, too," he said.
Unlike Benedict, who was either a professor or Vatican official most of his life, Francis has always been a pastor.
"He knows what Catholics in the trenches think," said John Allen, correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, a U.S. publication, and author of several books on the Vatican and the Church.
"He wants to lift up the rest of the Church's teaching, especially its social gospel. Doing so may invite a lot of people, beginning with alienated Catholics, to take another look," Allen said.
Some forecast a trickledown effect.
"When Francis speaks in a whole new register about gays, or when he is so open and easygoing and informal in his dealings with people, the clergy will take notice," said Gibson. "They may not like it, but they also know they need to get with the program."
Others were bemused by the media reaction.
"It's amazing what attention a colloquial paraphrase of the Catholic Catechism can attract," said Father John Paul Wauck, a professor at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University, a conservative institution.
During the press conference on the plane the pope referred to the Church's Universal Catechism, which says that while homosexuality is not a sin, homosexual acts are.
Wauck, who is a member of the conservative Church group Opus Dei, said Francis wanted people to see the greater picture of the "joyful message" of Christianity.
"If you were pope and had to identify the most crucial misunderstandings afflicting the world today, you might well not settle on a familiar list of moral faults, but rather focus on more fundamental issues about how we relate to God. Without understanding those fundamental issues, there is little hope of appreciating or accepting moral rules," Wauck said.
What will the future hold for the Church under Francis?
"The Church is still coming to terms with this new pope, who, as one cardinal put it, 'plays for the same team but kicks the ball in an entirely different direction'," said Vallely.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella)