In his Wednesday audience, Pope Francis departed from his written text to caution pilgrims against crooks who would charge money to pass through the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s Basilica, reminding them that God’s blessings come free of charge.
“Be careful that no slick, sneaky character tells you that you have to pay,” Francis said. “No! You don’t pay for salvation. Salvation cannot be bought. The door is Jesus, and Jesus is free!”
Driving his message deeper still, Francis compared such shysters to those whom Jesus calls “thieves and bandits.”
“Again, beware,” Francis said, “salvation is free!”
The Pope’s words came just two days after reports surfaced of a police crackdown on swindlers at shops around the Vatican who have been trying to exploit the influx of Jubilee pilgrims by selling falsified papal blessings and charging for free events.
In a sting operation, appropriately dubbed Jubilaeum, Italian police confiscated some 3,500 counterfeit parchments complete with the emblem of the Holy See and a photograph of Pope Francis conferring his blessing. In all, police have reportedly seized more than a million fake objects in the single week since the Jubilee Year began.
The forged papal blessings appeared in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and English, with the word “blessing of the pilgrim” and with a space for personalization with any name provided by the purchaser.
The shopkeepers involved in the fraud are being prosecuted for production and trade of counterfeit items. The value of the confiscated scrolls is more than 70 thousand euros.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano praised the tax police and other law enforcement officers involved in carrying out the Jubilaeum sting operation, who successfully uncovered several fraud schemes against pilgrims. Alfano added that the complaints of 19 people helped lead to “the seizure of more than one million counterfeit products since the opening of the Jubilee.”
“The Jubilee should be a great spiritual event for pilgrims and not a business opportunity for dishonest merchants,” Alfano said. He added that the plan against fraud during the Jubilee will focus on six points: illegal trade, the hospitality sector, tourism, transport, food and drink and economic control of the territory.
“It’s not just about security for fear of ISIS,” said Archbishop Renato Fisichella, head of the Jubilee organizing committee. “There has to be security to watch out for people’s dignity.”
The last Jubilee Year celebrated by Pope John Paul II in 2000 brought some 25 million pilgrims to Rome. Holy Years usually take place only every 25 years, but Pope Francis decided to call an extraordinary Jubilee this year on the theme of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
Highlighting the theme of mercy and concern for the poor, Francis will open a symbolic “holy door” at a Rome homeless shelter on Friday.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome