An article in L’Osservatore Romano of Holy Thursday written by Andrea Monda, editor of the newspaper, reveals that Pope Francis has a particular painting of Judas and the Risen Christ hanging in his personal office.
The focus of the article is quite simple: a painting hung in the Pope’s office. But this painting has a history, implications and echoes from the past, which reveals to us the Pope’s thinking and his conception of mercy. For the reader who wants to consider this painting, it may be seen at the head of Monda's article on the L’Osservatore Romano web site.
A Partially Known Origin
The Roman journalist explains the origin of the painting referred to in the article cited. Pope Francis has several times alluded to a capital [top of a column] at the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene of Vézelay - of which he also has a reproduction in his office. This capital represents the hanging of Judas, then in a second point, Christ carries the dead traitor on His shoulders, as the good shepherd does his sheep.
This affection for this capital and for the explanation given was given at least twice by Francis: on June 16, 2016, in his opening speech of the Ecclesial Congress of the diocese of Rome and on July 27 of the same year, in a exchange with the Polish bishops in Krakow. He also alluded to it in his homily on April 8, 2020.
The journalist from L’Osservatore Romano explains that a French Catholic painter, impressed by this explanation, tried to translate it into a painting which he then offered to the Sovereign Pontiff.
The Disputed Papal Interpretation
Regardless of the artistic or aesthetic value of this canvas, a first question arises: is the depiction of this Vézelay capital valid? Did the medieval artist really want to represent Christ as a good shepherd carrying Judas on His shoulders?
An investigation has already been carried out on this matter. In 2016, on the benoitetmoi website, a medieval iconography specialist did extensive research on this subject. His answer is unequivocal.
First of all, it cannot be a depiction of Christ for various reasons: his dress, the absence of a beard, and most importantly his facial expression, which is ambivalent - one half smiling and the other half neutral.
It could be the demon taking its prey. Several details suggest it.
But it seems that this capital tells a well-known story taken from the Book of Miracles of Saint James, “the hanged man was taken down.” This is the conclusion reached by the specialist's investigation.
The Fate of Judas According to Francis
But the second more important question is that of the fate of Judas. If we consider Pope Francis’s teaching on this subject, it should be noted that he disapproves of Judas's attitude and act of betrayal, which the Pope takes as an example of contemporary evil.
But on the other hand he claims at one time or another that he does not know the fate of Judas. He asks, “Does this mean that Judas is in hell? I do not know” (April 8, 2020). He then immediately adds: “I am looking at the [Vézelay] capital. And I hear the word of Jesus: 'Friend.'”
In a meditation on December 6, 2016, he again said, “a single word found in the Gospel, a word which says that Judas is hanged, hanged and ‘regretful.’” He noted: “I believe that the Lord will take that word and carry it with him, I don’t know, maybe, but that word makes us doubt”.
It should also be noted that Pope Benedict XVI had said something similar during the general audience of October 18, 2006. Speaking of Judas: “Even though he went to hang himself (cf. Mt 27:5), it is not up to us to judge his gesture, substituting ourselves for the infinitely merciful and just God.”
The Traditional Teaching on the Fate of Judas
Tradition and theology are nowhere near so uncertain and in doubt about the fate of Judas. Thus the Fathers of the Church are almost unanimous in affirming the eternal perdition of the traitor. It’s hard to find a dissonant voice. There is the same unanimity among theologians.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent affirms that the damnation of Judas is “certain” in its treatise on penance, as well as in the treatise on the sacrament of orders.
The main argument of traditional doctrine is the word of Christ reported by the evangelists St. Matthew (26:24) and St. Mark (14:21): “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed. It were better for him, if that man had not been born.” This terrible misfortune can only be interpreted as eternal perdition.
St. John also relates a word of Christ on this subject (17:12): “Those whom thou gavest me have I kept; and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition, that the scripture may be fulfilled.” The expression “son of perdition” means: “worthy of eternal death.”
The terrible end of the traitor by suicide, reported by St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles (1:18), only corroborates the sentence of the Son of God.
From these texts, theologians conclude that the damnation of Judas belongs to revelation. But how? Is this a dogma? No, certainly, because a dogma must be declared by the Church, and it is not - and it never will be, for the Church does not solemnly decide on damnation.
But the theologians will affirm that this damnation is “certain,” because it can be deduced from the words of Christ. This truth imposes itself on our adhesion under penalty of the sin of “recklessness” or even of “error in the faith.” Therefore, he who opposes this truth puts faith in danger and despises the tradition which sustains it.