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Pope Francis on Same-Sex Marriage: Church could Support Civil Unions, but Not Gay Marriage

( [email protected] ) Mar 13, 2014 06:27 PM EDT

Today is the first anniversary of Pope Francis' election, and he has marked the occasion by repeating the simple request that he asked the 1.2 million Catholics one year ago, "Pray for me." The pope is spending the week that marks his first year in office not with celebration, but with bishops and cardinals in humility and prayer.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, became the church's first Latin American and Jesuit leader in March 13, 2013. It was the first time a Pope had ever been named Francis, a name after Saint Francis of Assisi, in honor of his love for the poor.

While no official figures on increased church attendance are available, he has brought the believers back to St. Peter's Square.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter's Square before the Wednesday general audience October 30, 2013.

According to the Vatican, from March to December 2013, more than 6 million people attended liturgical events presided over by him. That's three-fold increase from the previous year, when about 2 million came to see Pope Benedict XVI.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera last week published an interview with the pope in which Francis said the church's teaching that marriage "can only be between a man and a woman", but the Roman Catholic Church could tolerate some types of same-sex civil unions. He said governments want to adopt civil unions to protect property rights and health care access.

In an interview over the summer, Francis said, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?" The comments on July 29 mark the first time a pope has spoken so openly about the topic.

He also made clear that women should have expanded roles in the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis washes the foot of a prisoner at Casal del Marmo youth prison in Rome on March 28, 2013. Two young women were among 12 people whose feet Pope Francis washed and kissed, the first time a pontiff has included females in the rite.

In one of his first actions as leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis knelt on the ground and washed and kissed the feet of a dozen inmates, including two young women. The ritual is traditionally, by church rules, restricted only for men and the Pope's decision to wash and kiss the feet of two women outraged traditionalists. 

Francis was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" in 2013. Through his focus on the poor and vulnerable, Francis has emphasized the Gospel message, which insists that to lead is to serve.