Washington - Pope Francis's remarks that he would not "judge" homosexuals were positively received on Monday by liberal groups in the US as "largely symbolic", but a big step in the right direction.
But the progressive Catholic and gay rights groups said the Church still has a long way to go.
The pontiff, who made his comments as he flew back to Rome from a high-profile trip to Brazil, appeared to be more conciliatory towards homosexuals than his predecessor Benedict XVI.
"If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?" the pope asked.
Prominent gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign said, while his "words do not reflect a shift in Church policy, they represent a significant change in tone".
"The widespread positive response his words have received around the world reveals that Catholics everywhere are thirsty for change," HRC's president Chad Griffin said.
Long way to go
Likewise, a progressive US Catholic group, Catholics United, which has been very critical of Church leadership, said Francis' comments "speak to what every young person knows: God loves gay people, and so should the Catholic Church.
"Pope Francis' call for the acceptance of gay priests is a direct repudiation of the backward beliefs of many ultra-conservative ideologues in the Church," the group's leader James Salt said in a statement.
"This statement on gay people, while largely symbolic, is a big step in the right way."
But both groups said the Church still has a long way to go.
"As long as millions of LGBT Catholic individuals, couples and youth alike are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they are born - how God made them - then the Church is sending a deeply harmful message," HRC's Griffin said.
And Catholics United said "more still needs to be done regarding the role of women in the Church".
"For many progressive Catholics, the treatment of women will be a defining measure" of Francis's papacy, Salt said.
In addition to his comments on gays, while on the plane back to the Vatican on Monday, Francis also said women should be given a bigger role in the Church, though he refused to consider their ordination, saying the "door is closed" on the issue.
"While we are heartened by his comments celebrating the role of women in the Church, we hope and pray that he backs his words up with meaningful reform," Salt said.