Historic moment as Pope says of gay community "who am I to judge them?"

In remarks that have signaled a breathtaking change of tone in the way the Church talks about gays, and in particular gay priests, the pope indicated on Monday that he doesn't have any problem with the inclination to homosexuality itself: 'Who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?' he said.

Francis's words have struck Church historians as quietly revolutionary, in the understated manner that some are already calling the new pope's modus operandi.

 Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Catholic magazine America called it remarkable.“This is the first positive utterance from a pope about gays that did not also include a condemnation,”  Martin told the Boston Globe. “I think it’s a remarkable act of mercy, compassion, and understanding.”

“Traditionally, popes and archbishops and Vatican officials use terms like ‘homosexuals’ or ‘homosexual orientation’ and rarely if ever use the actual word ‘gay,’ ”

“They used these very clinical terms, which itself frustrated the gay community.”

“And now the pope is saying who am I to judge them?” said Martin. “If anyone does not see that as a change, they’re not paying attention.”

Terrence W. Tilley, a professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University, told the Globe “What we’re seeing is someone who begins with a pastoral, personal relationship,” he said. “That makes him sound much more pragmatic.”

Ray Flynn, the former Boston mayor and US ambassador to the Vatican said the pope “expressed the same sentiments that I and many Catholics believe. We don’t judge other people. We respect and love people of every race, religion, ethnicity and lifestyle.”

The pontiff’s comments, while attention-grabbing for their style, appear to fall within the larger themes of compassion and justice Francis has set early in his papacy.”

In contrast Pope Benedict, if he spoke of gays at all, referred to them as 'objectively disordered' and called homosexuality 'an intrinsic moral evil.'

Although Francis didn't variate from official Church doctrine on the issue this week, in his discussion with the press on Monday his words suggested he's anxious to strike a much more compassionate and less judgmental tone than his famously stern predecessor.

'They shouldn't be marginalized,' the pope insisted. 'The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem… they're our brothers.'

Referring to 'gay' people is in itself a first for a pope, because it's an admission that their orientation is innate, but Francis followed that up by saying that the important thing isn't whether you're gay or not, what's important is that you seek God in good faith.

'The important thing isn't if you have this tendency, the important thing is to live in the light of God,' Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily La Repubblica told the press on Tuesday. 'Said by a pope, it's enormous.'

The Pope did still refer to homosexuality as a sin, but his obvious good will undercut that. 'When someone sins and confesses,' he said, 'God not only forgives but forgets. We don't have the right to not forget.'

For Catholic traditionalists, leery of any change (even in tone) in how the Church treats the issue, this was an unmistakable new direction that troubled some as it reassured others. But no one can doubt that the pontiff was calling for a more sincere welcome to be shown to gay members of the church, and gay clergy.

Here in New York the pontiff's words may finally melt the two decade long layers of permafrost separating Irish gay groups and the St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee (and Archbishop of New York Cardinal Dolan).

It will be news to them to discover that they're still taking a stronger line on gays than the pope. In light of this new beginning will they continue to  marginalize gay Irish groups, against the advice of the pope himself?

Or will they finally adopt the new thinking that the pontiff suggests they do? It would be wonderful to believe a new accommodation could be found after such mutual bitterness over the years.