Pope Francis has expressed deep affection for an atheist journalist whose claims, based on encounters with the Holy Father, have repeatedly sparked corrections and denials by the Vatican.

Eugenio Scalfari, a towering figure in the world of Italian journalism, passed away at 98 years of age this week. The self-proclaimed atheist was the founder and former editor of Italian leftist newspaper La Repubblica.

In a statement by the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, the Vatican said Pope Francis had learned “with sorrow of the passing of his friend.”

Pope Francis “cherishes with affection the memory of the meetings — and the deep conversations on the ultimate questions of humankind — that he had with him over the years, and he entrusts his soul to the Lord in prayer, so that He may receive him and console those who were close to him,” Vatican news reported.

Scalfari’s claims that Pope Francis had denied, in personal encounters, the reality of hell and the divinity of Jesus, amongst other things, made headlines around the world.

Vatican spokespersons dismissed the texts of Scalfari as unofficial.

In 2014, Father Federico Lombardi, past papal spokesperson, told CNA that "if there are no words published by the Holy See press office and not officially confirmed, the writer takes full responsibility for what he has written."

In 2015, Scalfari falsely reported that Pope Francis had made comments denying the existence of hell.

He also claimed in March 2018 that Pope Francis told him "hell doesn't exist, the disappearance of the souls of sinners exists."

In response to such claims, the Holy See stated that Scalfari’s writing should not be considered an accurate depiction of Francis' words, but the author's own "reconstruction."

In 2019, the Vatican directly denied Scalfari’s claim that Pope Francis said he did not believe that Jesus Christ was divine.

The Vatican also said there had not been an interview at all. Instead, the Holy See Press office explained, this was a "private meeting for the occasion of Easter.”

In a meeting with journalists of the Foreign Press Association of Rome in 2013, Scalfari said that all his interviews had been conducted without a recording device, nor taking notes while the person is speaking.

"I try to understand the person I am interviewing, and after that I write his answers with my own words," Scalfari explained. He conceded that it is therefore possible that "some of the Pope's words I reported, were not shared by Pope Francis."