Setting off widespread confusion, an Italian journalist said Pope Francis told him “hell does not exist, the disappearance of sinful souls exists,” a claim the Vatican denied Thursday. The Vatican press office says that although the pope met with La Repubblica co-founder Eugenio Scalfari, Francis did not give an interview to him, according to Thomas Rosica, an English-language spokesman for the Vatican.
It’s not the first time that Scalfari, a 93-year-old who has said he is an atheist, has made claims about the pope’s views, but the reference to the pope’s views on hell spread on social media during Holy Week.
The Vatican released a statement calling the article by Scalfari “the fruit of his reconstruction,” Rosica said.
Scalfari’s interview, published Thursday, quoted the pope as saying during a meeting that while the souls of repentant sinners “receive the forgiveness of God and go among the line of souls who contemplate him, the souls of those who are unrepentant, and thus cannot be forgiven, disappear.”
According to the National Catholic Reporter, the statement from the Vatican said that the pope and Scalfari had a “private meeting” with an Easter greeting but not an interview. The Catholic News Agency noted that it was their fifth meeting.
“No quotes of the aforementioned article should therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words,” the statement said.
In an interview with the New York Times, Scalfari said he did not take notes and it was a chat. While Scalfari said he remembered the pope saying hell did not exist, he also told the Times, “I can also make mistakes.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”
There is “basically zero plausibility” that Francis actually said what Scalfari cites him as saying on Hell, writes John Allen at the Catholic outlet Crux, since the pope “actually talks about Hell more frequently that any pope in recent memory, and he has never left any doubt that he regards it as a real possibility for one’s eternal destiny.”
For example, when he was speaking to families of victims of the Mafia in 2014 the pope made an appeal to the Mafia to turn their lives around and convert, according to NCR.
“Convert, there is still time for not ending up in hell. It is what is waiting for you if you continue on this path,” the pope said.
Why does Francis continue talking to this particular journalist? Allen suggests, “what seems clear is that Francis is less concerned about precision in such a situation than with dialogue, and he appears to believe that even if he may be misrepresented or misquoted – or, even if he lets the doctrinal fine points slide, for the sake of keeping the back-and-forth going, and gives off a false impression of what he really thinks -it’s still worth it to be in conversation with Scalfari and the cultural world he represents.”
Meanwhile, the pope’s Holy Thursday included a visit to the Regina Coeli prison in which he told inmates that he plans to have eye surgery next year, according to an Associated Press report. He washed the feet of 12 inmates at the prison, then wiped them and kissed them as part of the Holy Week ritual that he started when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, according to the Vatican.
“At my age, for example, cataracts come, and you don’t see [really] well. Next year I have to have an operation,” he said during the visit, according to the AP. Pope Francis, 81, also told the inmates to conduct their own “cataract surgery for the soul.”
Pope Francis’s schedule for Easter weekend includes the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday at the Colosseum in Rome, a Holy Saturday Easter vigil and Easter Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Meanwhile, the AP also reported that part of St. Peter’s Basilica was sealed off after plaster fell off Thursday near the Pieta statue by Michelangelo.
This story has been updated with more details.