The 76-year-old pope also said he felt “close” to those people who “do not recognise themselves in any faith but are in a search for truth, for goodness and for beauty, which is God.”

The reference echoed a “silent blessing” that Francis made on Saturday to non-believers at a meeting with journalists from around the world.

“You are all children of God,” he said on Saturday.

Vatican expert Sandro Magister, who writes for the Italian weekly L’Espresso, said the references show “an attention to people without a religion” that was particularly significant as the Church struggles with rising secularism in many countries.