Casual pope puts Vatican on alert with quips

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

Pope Francis smiles during the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013.

Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has grabbed headlines with his off-the-cuff homilies, crowd-pleasing one-liners and lengthy interviews during which he has pontificated on everything from the church's "obsession" with rules to how he won't judge gays. But his chattiness has gotten him into some trouble, and the Vatican has gone into damage-control mode to clarify, correct or put his comments into context. Here's a look at some of Francis' more eyebrow-raising comments, and the efforts by the Vatican's spin doctors to address them.

DID FRANCIS REALLY CONSIDER TURNING DOWN THE JOB?

In an interview with the Rome daily La Repubblica, editor Eugenio Scalfari quoted the pope as saying he was "seized by a great anxiety" moments after his election and asked the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel to give him a few minutes time to think things over.

"To make it go away and relax, I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows," he was quoted as saying. "At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting." The pope was quoted as saying he signed the acceptance form and went out on the balcony to be introduced to the world as Pope Francis.

But the Rev. Thomas Rosica, who helps with Vatican media relations, later said the interview didn't reflect Francis' real words. He said Scalfari neither recorded the conversation nor took notes, reconstructing the conversation from memory and printing it as a verbatim interview. The Vatican doesn't dispute the overall thrust of the interview, which Scalfari said he submitted to Francis for review and which the Vatican newspaper reprinted verbatim. But Rosica said the purported "mystical" experience recounted by Repubblica after the election didn't happen, though Francis himself has said previously and in public that "I didn't want to be pope."

CAN ATHEISTS BE SAVED?

One of the novelties introduced by Francis has been his daily 7 a.m. Mass in the Vatican hotel, to which groups and individuals are invited. Francis delivers homilies each day, the contents of which are summarized by Vatican Radio. On May 22, he caused no shortage of confusion when he suggested that even atheists could find salvation.

According to church teaching, the Catholic Church holds the "fullness of the means of salvation" — a message that has long been taken to mean that only Catholics can find salvation. But in his homily, Francis said: "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!"

Rosica issued a lengthy "explanatory note" a few days later after being inundated with questions about whether Francis was changing church doctrine on salvation. He noted that church teaching also holds that "those who through no fault of their own" don't know about Jesus but seek God and try to do his will can also attain eternal salvation.

"Always keep in mind the audience and context of Pope Francis' homilies," Rosica cautioned. "His words are not spoken in the context of a theological faculty or academy nor in interreligious dialogue or debate. He speaks in the context of Mass."

SHOULD THE VATICAN BANK BE SAVED?

On April 24, Francis invited members of the Vatican bank to join him for Mass in the hotel. The Institute for Religious Works, as the bank is known, has been plagued by scandals — most recently over the arrest of a Vatican monsignor on charges he tried to smuggle some 20 million euro ($26 million) into Italy from Switzerland without declaring it at customs.

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