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Pope's remarks seen as good step toward inclusion

Pope Francis’ comments Monday about gays triggered welcome reactions -- though most observers said his remarks merely reflected a tone of openness that he has set for his papacy and not a change in policy.

“If a person is gay, and looks for the Lord and had goodwill, who am I to judge them?” the pontiff said at a news conference in which he addressed the reports of a "gay lobby" within the Vatican.

Pope: 'Who am I to judge' gay people?

Mary Ellen Lopata, who co-founded Fortunate Families, a networking ministry with Catholic parents of LGBT children, said it was a “refreshing statement after years of hearing less welcoming statements from church leadership” and called it a “good first step to understanding and love.”

“I sense what he is saying is that we are all children of God and we need to treat each other that way regardless of our sexual orientation,” she said. “If that is indeed what he is saying, I think that is a good step forward for reconciling with gay and lesbian people around the world, and also their families.

"Much that’s been said in past years by church leaders has been very hurtful not only to gay and lesbian people but to their families as well.”

But Mark Dowd, a former Dominican friar in the U.K. who left the church partly because he fell in love with a former friar, doubted the comments represented a significant shift in the church, saying it made “a nice headline” and not much else.

“On a scale of zero to 10 about where we need to be, that’s moving from about zero to three as opposed to nine or ten,” said Dowd, a freelance broadcaster specializing in religion.

While on a plane from Brazil to Rome, Pope Francis told journalists that gay people should not be marginalized, saying, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"

The official position of the Catholic Church on the issue is that while homosexual desires or attractions are not in themselves sinful, the physical acts are. 

The pontiff’s remarks made for “good common ground,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a group of LGBT Catholics.

“If someone loves the Lord and has goodwill -- the reality of that describes an awful lot of LGBT people,” she said. “There are a lot of LGBT people of faith who are working very hard to hold onto their faith and I think it would be important for us to bring our stories to the pope and other church leaders to move this conversation forward.”

A key step would be bridging the gap between some church leaders who engage in anti-gay rhetoric and their parishioners, many whom support LGBT rights, Duddy-Burke said. Fifty-four percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage, according to a Pew Forum poll released earlier this year.

“If Francis can be an instrument in healing that divide, we would certainly welcome that and are happy to partner with him,” she said, while noting that only time would tell what impact his remarks would have on daily life.

“How many times in recent months have we seen bishops indicate a willingness to look at the question of civil unions or some sort of legal recognition of same-sex couples (but) only a day or two later they have been forced to retract their statements? Will that happen with the pope? I don’t know, but I would hope that certainly even a change of tone or an indication of openness to discussing these issues is helpful," Duddy-Burke said.

LGBT advocacy groups recalled the pope’s speaking out against same-sex marriage in Argentina – where he was an archbishop and cardinal -- as well as the right for gay couples to adopt.

“This pope had a much more difficult relationship with gay people and the work to end anti-gay discrimination when he was in Argentina but since assuming the papacy he seems to be opening his heart and moving in the right direction,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry.

“Certainly to have this kind of statement coming from the pope should create much more political space for decision makers (rather) than the constant pressure to discriminate that we heard from prior popes.”

NBC News' Ian Johnston contributed to this report.