The oldest gay rights magazine in the United States named Pope Francis its "Person of the Year" as the pontiff marked his 77th birthday on Tuesday by inviting homeless people to join him for breakfast in the Vatican.

The Advocate magazine said it gave Francis the honour because, although he is still against homosexual marriage, his pontificate so far had shown "a stark change in [anti-gay] rhetoric from his two predecessors".

It hailed as a landmark his famous response last July to a reporter who asked about gay people in the Church: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

The Advocate noted that the Catholic gay organization Equally Blessed called the phrase "some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people."

The Vatican has stressed the Pope's words did not change Church teachings that homosexual tendencies are not sinful but homosexual acts are.

Still, the gay community and many heterosexuals in the Church have welcomed what they see as a shift in emphasis and a call for the Church to be more compassionate and less condemning.

The Advocate said no one should "underestimate any pope's capacity for persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) people".

Time's Person of the Year

Last week, Time magazine gave Francis the same honour, crediting him with shifting the message of the Catholic Church towards mercy and away from condemnation while capturing the imagination of millions.

The Vatican said the Pope, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario of Argentina, marked his 77th birthday with his customary morning Mass in the guest house where he has opted to live instead of spacious papal apartments used by his predecessors.

Four homeless people who live on the streets near the Vatican were invited to take part by a Vatican official who administers the Pope's charity and stayed for breakfast with the Pope and his aides, the Vatican said.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis is considered one of the more informal and down-to-earth popes in recent times. (Giampiero Sposito/Reuters)

They live on the street in the Rome neighbourhood just outside the Holy See's walls and were invited by the Vatican official in charge of alms-giving to attend the morning Mass which Francis celebrates daily at the hotel where he lives on Vatican City grounds.

One of the men held his dog as he was presented to Francis after the guests chatted following Mass.

The Vatican also said Francis invited his household help to join him in a "family-like" atmosphere, and he spoke of them one by one during his homily.

Modest note

Francis, who is making history as one of the more informal and down-to-earth popes in recent times, struck a modest note as he reflected out loud about people's roles in the world. "Let the Lord write our history," he said in his homily.

After Mass, all ate breakfast with Francis at the hotel's dining room.

Francis has already blown out the candles on his birthday cake, presented to him on Saturday by children at the Vatican, but another present awaits him. A delegation from his favourite Argentine soccer team, San Lorenzo, will give him a replica of their championship trophy.

Vatican officials said no fixed time was set for the papal meeting with officials and at least one player from the team, which clinched the Argentine championship on Sunday. The delegation flew from Argentina on Monday night on a private plane, to arrive in Rome on Tuesday.

"Arriving on such as special day, like the 77th birthday of the Pope, this meeting seems made for God," said the team's vice-president Marcelo Tinelli, shortly before departure.

The team delegation might be presented to Francis before or after Wednesday's public audience at the Vatican, although Vatican officials didn't rule out a possibility of a meeting sometime on the pope's birthday.

With files from The Associated Press