Pope presides over Good Friday amid security, controversy

Pope Francis lies down in prayer during the Good Friday Passion of Christ Mass inside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis presided over solemn Good Friday services amid heightened security at Rome’s Colosseum for the Via Crucis procession and a new communications controversy at home over the existence of hell.

Wearing his white coat to guard against the nighttime chill, Francis listened intently along with some 20,000 faithful as the meditations re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion were read out in the torch-lit Colosseum. At the end, he delivered a meditation of his own, denouncing those who seek power, money and conflict and praying the Catholic Church will always be an “arc of salvation, a source of certainty and truth.”

This year, the prayers were composed by students in keeping with Francis’ dedication of 2018 to addressing the hopes and concerns of young Catholics.

Italian police, carabinieri and soldiers were on alert, with Holy Week coinciding with a spate of arrests of suspected Islamic extremists around Italy and warnings from law enforcement about the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria.

The Good Friday procession, the seminal event in Christianity leading to Christ’s resurrection celebrated on Easter Sunday, also coincided with a new communications controversy in the Vatican over the pope’s reported assertion that hell doesn’t exist.

The Vatican hasn’t denied Francis’ comments to the La Repubblica newspaper at the height of Holy Week, saying only that Francis’ quotes can’t be considered a “faithful transcript” of what he said since the journalist reconstructed a conversation.

It was the fifth time in five years that Francis has spoken to Repubblica’s founder, Eugenio Scalfari, a 93-year-old devout atheist who admits he doesn’t record or take notes during interviews.

Nearly every time a Francis interview has appeared on Repubblica’s front page, the Vatican press office has insisted the pope’s words weren’t necessarily accurate, without denying them outright or explaining what he meant. That has prompted questions about why the pope continues to speak to Scalfari and allow himself to be quoted.

Spokesman Greg Burke didn’t respond Friday when asked whether the pope believes in the existence of hell or not. Francis has in the past spoke frequently about the devil and hell, in keeping with Catholic teaching.

The doubts, however, have enraged Catholic conservatives, who have lost their patience with a pope who seems to care less about doctrine than dialogue, especially with atheists and people of other faiths.

Leading Francis critic Antonio Socci said the pope’s words “in one fell swoop wiped away all the dogma of immortality of the soul and hell. As if the church has been tricking us for 2,000 years and Christ had lied by instilling in us the fear of hell.”

About the author

Nicole Winfield


Click here to post a comment

  • Ironically, St. Peter’s was in part financed by the sale of indulgences to help people avoid Hell, or avoid Purgatory. For centuries, the threat and fear of Hell has been one of the Church’s most powerful financial tools.

  • Okay folks. This is the long-awaited line in the sand, and Mr. Pope Francis — the wrong man for the job — has finally chosen to draw that line against Christianity itself. (I never thought in my life that I’d have to say that.)

    Now Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, they gave the world a good “New Normal.” Catholic Christianity rightly prospered with them. Catholicism was cool.

    But now we have Francis’s “New Normal.” He says, “Hell does not exist. The disappearance of sinful souls exists.” Abandoning both the Bible & the Catholic Catechism. A total mess.

  • You have to wonder, don’t you, why some right-wing political and religious folks are so frightened of this pope that they feel the need to grasp at any straw to try to “expose” him as unorthodox?

    Even the tiny straw of an interview that was not taped or transcribed, but offered to the media in an “interpreted” form that may or may not represent what Pope Francis said in this interview — information easily ascertained at any number of bona fide news sites commenting on this story . . . .

    What is the interest of people allied with the ugliest of right-wing political and religious movements in undermining this particular pope? What does he represent for them, that they’re willing to lie about him and his two predecessors, whose behavior resulted in a mass exodus of Catholics from the Catholic church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as they,

    1. Covered up the abuse of minors by priests and sheltered high-level, wealthy abusers in the hierachy;

    2. Slapped women in the face by pretending that it’s not possible to ordain women or treat them as equals to men;

    3. Silenced and punished one theologian after another;

    4. Dismantled the Vatican II project;

    5. Allied themselves with the ugliest of right-wing political and religious groups around the world;

    6. Defined gay human beings as intrinsically disordered, entirely new and unprecedented language in Catholic theology;

    7. Chose to ignore the sensus fidelium, the moral insights of the majority of lay Catholics who recognize that magisterial teaching about contraception is wrong (and that magisterial teaching about sexual ethics in general, insofar as it’s premised on crude biologistic readings of natural law, is flatly wrong);

    8. Encouraged the U.S. Catholic bishops to ally themselves with anti-Catholic white evangelicals and to give folks the impression that abortion and same-sex marriage are the sole issues on the basis of which “real” Catholics vote;

    9. Encouraged the U.S. Catholic bishops to pretend that “real” Catholics vote Republican.

    10. Encouraged a so-called “pro-life” movement that has unmasked itself in American political life as one of the most demonically anti-life religio-political movements imaginable.

    There are sound reasons millions of Catholics walked away from the Catholic church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Nor has the current pope really shifted that trend, because he’s far too willing to appease the right-wing groups inside the top levels of Catholic leadership who helped the two previous popes create this mess.

    Why do some right-wing political and religious leaders think it’s important to drive wedges between the many lay Catholics who are progressive politically and religiously, and the top leaders of the Catholic church? Why do they seem to think it’s holy task even to lie about this?

    Have to wonder, don’t you? Who’s paying for all of this? Who funds this kind of reprehensible behavior, which often takes place on news sites and blog sites as people leave comments under pseudonymous usernames disguising their real identity, so that no one knows whom they’re serving and whom they represent?

    Just wondering.

  • I say somebody, please, dig up all the quotes associated with this Peter of Catholicism talking or writing about hell. Because:

    THIS HAPPENED BEFORE, FOLKS. Looka here. The hell described in the following by this here “Mr. Pope Francis – the wrong man for the job”, as my brother floydlee capped a naming halo on the guy (per his good one of a comment below) – isn’t – wait for it – a sec or 2 longer – hold on – TADA – hell at all! Nope. Kinda like atheists denying hell’s existence: there’s no hell, but if there is, look around you, all the hell you’ve created, thanks a bunch!

    “[A] very proud angel, very proud, very intelligent, … was envious of God. Do you understand? He was envious of God. He wanted God’s place. And God wanted to forgive him, but he said, ‘I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!’ THIS IS HELL: It is telling God, ‘You take care of yourself because I’ll take care of myself.’ They don’t send you to hell, you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell. Do you understand?”

    Source: Junno Arocho Esteves, “Vatican: Claim that pope denied hell’s existence is unreliable”, Catholic News Service, March 29, 2018.

  • Here’s the problem, William. Actually, two.

    (1) If this story is false, Francis (or his Vatican guys) need only tweet, “I Never Said That”, or merely “Fake News”, and the entire mess is gone forever. Totally falsified. But NOBODY, not even Francis himself, denies that he said it. Amazing.

    (2) THIS statement is far worse than “right-wing” or “left-wing”. Mr. Socci is correct: the Pope’s statement directly makes a liar out of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus personally explained the unpleasant details about Hell, in the Four Gospels. But now Francis says it’s all a falsehood.

  • Even the secular websites have noticed this particular gig (with a wink and a nudge).

    “Just a few hours after this shocking declaration, pieces of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome suddenly came crashing to the ground – narrowly missing worshipers and Michelangelo’s famous Pieta statue.

    Is this a coincidence, or a sign? Will churches be even MORE overflowing on Easter Sunday?”

    — Paul Seaburn, Mysterious Universe

  • Here’s the problem, floyd:

    Some people who comment at religion sites, who are not Catholic, are determined to make Catholicism — which they don’t understand, since they aren’t even Catholic themselves — dance to their own right-wing tune.

    Or to the tune of whomever they happen to be serving, as they play this divisive game, trying to divide a religious community to which they don’t belong and undercut its social teachings in the public square . . . .

    Here’s the problem, floyd: the folks engaging in this reprehensible behavior often do it while using pseudonyms that mask their real identities and real connections.

    They’re willing to lie to accomplish their goals. They’re willing to grasp at straws and distort media reports to achieve their goals.

    They lie about how robust the Catholic church was under two popes of whom they approve — John Paul II and Benedict XVI — when anyone who can read polls and bona fide news articles know a mass exodus of Catholics from the church under those two popes.

    Here’s the problem, floyd: what vested interest do some right-wing religionists and political leaders have in forcing the Catholic church to dance to their tune, and in employing lies and slander to do that? All under the cover of pseudonyms that disguise their true identity and true affiliations?

  • “As if the church has been tricking us for 2,000 years…”

    Yeah, just imagine that!!

  • Such disrespect and outright rebellion against the Pope, appointed by God, is a mortal sin. Wear light clothing and use plenty of SPF100 sun-blocker.

  • Very interesting post. Spent part of last night just pondering it. Your quotation is a pure red flag all by itself, even if Pope Francis hadn’t said the infamous “There is no hell — there is the disappearance of souls.”

    In your quote, Francis does the same unbelievable gig again — he totally negates & denies what the Lord Jesus Christ specifically said about Hell.

    Francis says, in effect, that people like Ben or Mr. Rational are in “Hell” right now, but that they’re in no danger of the eternal fiery afterlife Hell that Jesus described. Instead, God will simply “disappear” their souls, Francis says. But that makes Jesus a liar, and creates false hope.

  • According to a “homily” by “Pope Francis at Mass this morning in Santa Marta … ‘Eternal damnation is not a torture chamber. That’s a description of this second death: it is a death. And those who will not be received in the Kingdom of God, it’s because they have not drawn close to the Lord. These are the people who journeyed along their own path, distancing themselves from the Lord and passing in front of the Lord but then choosing to walk away from Him. Eternal damnation is continually distancing oneself from God. It is the worst pain, an unsatisfied heart, a heart that was created to find God but which, out of arrogance and self-confidence, distances itself from God.'”

    Source: Asia News, November 25, 2016, “Pope: eternal damnation ‘is not a torture chamber’, but being eternally distant from God”.

  • FYI 1 – I’m hoping that the latter part of your recent statement that the pope is “abandoning both the Bible & the Catholic Catechism”, would touch Catholics’ hearts that you’re really reaching out to them. Like, Don’t you guys see or care what’s happening to the Catholic Church?

    FYI 2 – Eugenio Scalfari & Francis had this discussion before. And Vatican did the redacting and deflection before, too. So over at Catholic World Report the editors are advising the 2 stop seeing each other. (It must the wine talking, so be careful, Francis. That’s just my editorializing their editorial. But you know what I mean.)

    FYI 3. I got no takers, so I had to scan the Catholic Internet myself for Francis’ past statements on hell. Only 1 sticks out and I posted it minutes ago.

    Hey, brother, Happy Easter! God & Jesus be with thee.

  • And likewise with you also, intrepid poster HpO. And thanks for your interesting FYI’s there as well.

  • FEAR rules among those Catholics who supported JPII and B16’s authoritarian behaviors. At the root of such conduct is FEAR, both among the leaders and their followers. Not healthy.

  • Francis’ description of eternal damnation is much like that of JPII, who described hell as a state of being in total isolation from others and God.

  • “Catholic Christianity rightly prospered with [JPII and B16].”

    Yeah, sure 🙂

    [sarcasm alert]

  • But even here, you can see a critical difference.

    Unlike Francis, JPII did NOT say anything about God “disappearing” the souls of unrepentant sinners. That notion is completely alien — indeed, hostile — to the direct words and descriptions given by Jesus himself regarding Hell.

  • “[T]he Vatican press office has insisted the pope’s words weren’t necessarily accurate, without denying them outright or explaining what he meant.” We can certainly benefit from clarification of what Francis told the journalist. Perhaps there is a linguistic factor that accounts for raised eyebrows among folks.

    Would Jesus’ listeners have understood Hell to be a place *or* a state of being? I don’t know. JPII regarded it as the latter. In any event, a person in (a state of) Hell would be truly “lost” whether in a state or a place. There seemingly would be no hope for resurrection/salvation.

    I myself embrace the doctrine of universal salvation, which holds that all souls — sinners and saints, believers and unbelievers — will be saved by God=Love. I base my belief on (a) the Gospel being the “good news” of our salvation, (b) the name of Jesus meaning “God saves”, not “God saves if”, and (c) Luke 15’s three parables that portray God pursuing people “lost” in sin — or just plain “lost” in belief. The Church of Rome has never condemned this doctrine and has never used its infallible teaching authority to proclaim anyone in Hell. One theologian, if I recall, said Hell was an “impossible possibility”.

    Finally, can a sinner actually refuse to repent? I say “No” for two reasons: (a) God’s love is irresistible to even the most hardened soul, sinner or not, and (b) it is God who makes repentance possible in the first place (the prodigal son’s “repentance” is motivated by FEAR and will not be actually realized until he sees his father ordering preparation of a feast to celebrate and rejoice at having “found” his “lost” son). FEAR is a means of control. Divine love has no need to control unless, of course, the divine attraction itself is interpreted as a means of control. In the latter case, will a soul in a state of rapture perceive this “drawing toward love” as a control mechanism? I doubt it.

    Anyway, my thoughts…

  • Are you sure brothers Francis & John Paul II were saying the same things about hell?

    Here’s the latter from L’Osservatore Romano: Weekly Edition in English, August 4, 1999:

    The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy. This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the truths of faith on this subject: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell'” (n. 1033).

    “Eternal damnation”, therefore, is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God’s judgement ratifies this state.

  • “Are you sure brothers Francis & John Paul II were saying the same things about hell?”

    They certainly said that hell is a state of being and not a place.

    Can a person “freely and definitively separate [himself] from God”?

    I’m far from convinced. I place little stock in the CCC’s statements about hell and (so-called) “free will”. Traditional Catholic doctrine teaches that one who dies in the state of mortal sin *more than likely* will go to hell. I emphasize “more than likely” because kids in parochial school before Vatican II were told two things, namely, (a) make a true/perfect act of contrition if dying in mortal sin without confession and (b) dying otherwise in mortal sin “risked” eternal suffering in the fires of hell. Two observations: Would a kid in mortal sin always have the chance to say “I’m sorry, God” before dying? What’s with the word “risk” in this context? As I wrote earlier, Rome has never declared a single soul to be in hell, yet the Church effectively interpreted “risk” as “going to hell”. What a terrible impression — nay, burden — to impose on children told that God the Punisher loves them! If this is not orthotoxy, I don’t know what is.

    According to CCC-1857, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'” How many sinners can actually be said to commit acts that simultaneously meet these three conditions? Even the CCC effectively qualifies these conditions in paragraphs 1858 thru 1861. What I find particularly telling is CCC-1856 informing us that God takes the “initiative” to extend “mercy”. This acknowledgement reflects what is demonstrated in Luke 15’s three parables. God acts, and sinners — like the “lost” sheep, coin, and son — cannot resist reconciliation. God “rejoices” and “celebrates” a sinner’s return home.

    I’m convinced by the argument that we are truly “free” only when we live as God wants us to live. Otherwise, we are “lost” in sin (Luke 15), and it is up to God to “initiate” searching for, finding, and bringing us back home to true freedom. Sinners cannot free themselves. In four Gospel passages, Jesus instructs his listeners to *initiate* forgiveness without condition; only one of these passages mentions “repentance”. The Gospel informs us that repentance is made possible by God’s liberating us from sin, not by any initiative on our part. If Jesus tells his followers to forgive without limit, will God not do so?

    I think Matthew 5:43-48 is quite instructive here:

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect,* just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Regarding the word “perfect”, the USCCB commentary notes: “*Perfect: in the gospels this word occurs only in Matthew, here and in Mt 19:21. The Lucan parallel (Lk 6:36) demands that the disciples be merciful.” Perfection is showing mercy. God is perfect.

  • Fair to say, then, that Eugenio Scalfari’s version of Francis’ version of (no) hell, universal salvation & torment-free annihilation, is your preference to Reese’s version of Francis’ version of the Hell of Separation-from-God Anxiety. If only the pope would just ponticates one over the other, instead of cowering behind the Vatican PR’s Apparatus of Infallibility and their Fake News Machinery.