New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn and gay rights groups were among those applauding Pope Francis' support for gay priests.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis rhetorically asked reporters aboard the papal aircraft on the journey back to the Vatican from his first foreign trip to Brazil.

But when asked his position on gay marriage, Francis drew a clear line in the sand: “You know perfectly the position of the church.”

Many responded that it wasn't what the Holy Father said, but rather how he said it that made such an impact.

“It's the way he's expressing himself, with great candor, that is surprising people,” John Wauck, a professor of communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, told Time magazine. “Actually, the substance of it is nothing exceptional.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest LGBT rights advocate, agreed.

“While Pope Francis's words do not reflect a shift in Church policy, they represent a significant change in tone,” Griffin wrote in a blog post. “Like his namesake, Francis's humility and respect for human dignity are showing through, and the widespread positive response his words have received around the world reveals that Catholics everywhere are thirsty for change.”

Quinn, who is gay, also cheered the pope during an appearance on cabler Current's Say Anything.

“That's a big statement, you know, from the pope, the head of the Catholic Church, not a place that's been like at all leading in this issue,” Quinn said. “And I know some people are going to say, 'He should have said more, he should have said less,' but that's a big statement from the pope.” (The video is embedded on this page. Visit our video library for more videos.)