TAMPA - Pope Francis' trip to Brazil that brought out record crowds was almost overshadowed by a few impromptu comments he made on the plane trip back.
In his first press conference since becoming Pope, Francis made the most conciliatory comments about homosexuals and specifically gay priests ever spoken by a modern Pope.
The unusually frank press conference on the flight home from Brazil covered a lot of ground over 80 minutes, but most of the press corps reported this quote:
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
The comment was in answer to a question about gay priests believed to be in high positions within the Vatican itself. The words were remarkable for the sentiment and for being the first time a Pope has publicly used the word gay.
At Metropolitan Community Church in Tampa, Reverend Phyllis Hunt is sure many in her congregation will be encouraged by the Pope's words. Her pews are filled with former Catholics whose sexual orientation made them feel unwelcome at their traditional church.
"They come from all over because we are an inclusive church that welcomes them no matter their sexual orientation" said Hunt.
The Pope's comments do not imply an approval of homosexual behavior or same sex unions by the Catholic Church. But Francis' comments that Gay clergymen should be forgiven, and their sins forgotten is a departure from his more conservative predecessors who had upheld the church's condemnation of non celibate homosexuality.
Hunt believes the Pope's comments represent a trend that may eventually cause her to lose some members of her congregation.
"I think many Catholics would go back. Catholicism is something that lives in your soul. It's deep in your bones" said Hunt.
Bishop Robert Lynch of the St. Petersburg Catholic Diocese was not available to comment as of news time, nor was his spokesperson.