At the end of six days in African countries bloodied by war and conflict, Pope Francis said that "the biggest plague" afflicting the world today is the weapons trade.
Tribalism with its ancient rivalries is a problem, he told reporters Feb. 5, "but it is also true that the violence is provoked" by the ready supply of weapons and that making it easier for people to kill each other just to make money "is diabolical -- I have no other word for it."
Pope Francis told reporters returning to Rome with him from South Sudan that since the visit was an ecumenical one, Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, would join him for the airborne news conference.
The pope had visited Congo Jan. 31-Feb. 3 before joining the other church leaders in South Sudan Feb. 3-5 to press the government to implement peace agreements, to console victims of the conflict and to encourage the country's Christians to do their part.
Over the course of almost one hour, the three made opening remarks and responded to questions on topics ranging from violence in Africa to the criminalization of homosexuality and from the war in Ukraine to future papal travel, including the possibility of other ecumenical trips.
Pope Francis also was asked if his job had become more difficult since the death Dec. 31 of Pope Benedict XVI and the publication of various books and articles portraying the late pope as critical of Pope Francis.
"I was able to talk about everything with Pope Benedict and change opinions," Pope Francis said. "He was always at my side, supportive, and if I had some difficulty, I would tell him, and we would talk."
As an example, Pope Francis said that when he had said in an interview that for the Catholic Church marriage could be only between a man and a woman, but the church could accept civil union legislation providing legal protections to gay couples, a theologian went to "Pope Benedict and denounced me."
"Benedict was not frightened," he simply called "four cardinals who were first-class theologians" and asked for their opinions, which they gave, the pope said. "The story ended there."
Stories that "Benedict was embittered by this or that decision" of Pope Francis have no foundation, he said. "I think the death of Benedict has been instrumentalized by people who want 'to bring water to their own mill,'" meaning they want to reinforce their own position even if it harms another.
"People who would use a person who was so good, so godly" have no ethics, the pope said. They are not defending Pope Benedict but their own ideologies.
"I wanted to say clearly who Pope Benedict was. He was not bitter," the pope said.
Asked about his health and future trips, the pope said his knee is still painful, but since "weeds never die," he hopes to continue traveling. He plans to go to Lisbon in early August for World Youth Day and then to Marseille, France, Sept. 23 for a meeting about the church and society on the shores of the Mediterranean, a theme that obviously includes migration.
"And there is a possibility that from Marseille we will fly to Mongolia," the pope said. For 2024, he added, a trip to India is being studied.
Pope Francis also was asked about telling the Associated Press in January that he believed it was an injustice to criminalize homosexuality; it is illegal in South Sudan while in Congo many LGBTQ young people are thrown out of their families.
The pope said he had discussed homosexuality with reporters on several occasions. The first time, he said, was flying back from Brazil in 2013, "when I said that if a person with a homosexual tendency is a believer and is seeking God, who am I to judge him?"
Returning to Rome from the World Meeting of Families in 2018, he said, he also spoke about it although the news conference was "a bit problematic because that day the letter of that boy came out," using the Italian term "ragazzo" to refer to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who accused Pope Francis of ignoring the serial abuse carried out by Theodore E. McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, and demanding he resign.
Anyway, he said, during that news conference he told parents it was wrong to kick children out of the house or shun them because they are gay.
Those with a homosexual orientation "are children of God. God loves them. God accompanies them," the pope said.
Archbishop Welby, whose Church of England is having tense debates about blessings for same sex couples, told the reporters, "I wish I had spoken as eloquently and clearly as the pope. I entirely agree with every word he said there."
The archbishop had said in January that he personally would not use his church's new "Prayers of Love and Faith," which bless, but do not confer the status of matrimony on same-sex unions. The archbishop said that as an "instrument of communion" among Anglicans worldwide, he would not offer the blessings that so many Anglican bishops, including in South Sudan, find objectionable.
Rev. Greenshields said he only wanted to make "a very short observation: There is nowhere in my reading of the four Gospels where I see Jesus turning anyone away. There is nowhere in the four Gospels that I see anything other than Jesus expressing love to whoever he meets."
Both Archbishop Welby and Greenshields said they would be "delighted" to join the pope on another ecumenical pilgrimage.