Funny and candid, Francis' exchange with the media was exceptional. While Pope John Paul II used to have on-board talks with journalists, 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.
Francis did not shy away from controversial topics, including reports suggesting that a group of gay clergymen exert undue influence on Vatican policy. Italian news media reported this year that the allegations of a so-called "gay lobby" contributed to Benedict's decision to resign.
"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 term "gay lobby" is bandied about with abandon in the Italian media and is decidedly vague. Interpretations of what it means have ranged from a group of celibate gay priests who are friends, to suggestions that a group of sexually active gay priests use blackmail to exert influence on Vatican decision-making.
Stressing that Catholic 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.
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 about traveling to the Holy Land next year and is considering invitations from Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
— 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's native Poland traveling to the ceremony by bus.
Francis also 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 with Vatican protocol.
"The keys to the atomic bomb weren't in it," Francis quipped, referring to the case that accompanies U.S. presidents with nuclear launch codes. The bag, he said, contained a razor, a prayer book, his agenda and a book on St. Therese of Lisieux, to whom he is particularly devoted.
"It's normal" to carry a bag when traveling, he said, displaying a simplicity of style that separates him from previous pontiffs, who until a few decades ago were carried around on platforms.
"We have to get used to this being normal."
Associated Press writer Frances D'Emilio contributed to this report from Rome.
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