(Reuters) - A Roman Catholic priest said he was continuing to give Holy Communion to mafia bosses at a high-security prison in Italy, even after Pope Francis said members of organized crime groups were "excommunicated".
During a trip to one of Italy's most mafia-infested regions last month, Francis for the first time described mafiosi as "excommunicated" - totally cut off from the Church - because "their lives follow this path of evil".
After the pope's comments, "some prisoners came to me and asked me if they should consider themselves excommunicated, saying that if they could no longer take the sacrament, they would stop coming to Mass," prison chaplain Marco Colonna told la Repubblica newspaper in an article published on Monday.
"I tried to explain to them that the Church doesn't kick anyone out, and after a few days of reflection, I told them that they would continue to receive the sacrament," said Colonna, who works at the prison in the southern town of Larino.
"I continued to give communion to bosses ... I cannot avoid it," the priest added.
The Vatican has said the pope's use of the word "excommunication" last month had not amounted to a formal decree under church law.
Instead, a Vatican spokesman said, the pope had meant to tell the criminals they had effectively excommunicated themselves and could not participate in Church sacraments because they had distanced themselves from God.
High-ranking Church officials also quoted in the Italian media on Monday said the pope's words meant mafia bosses should not be allowed to take communion, but added that did not mean they were shut out forever.
"Someone who is excommunicated cannot take communion and is excluded from the sacraments, but he can listen to the word of God," Nunzio Galantino, secretary general of the Italian Bishop's conference whose diocese the pope was visiting when he spoke out against the mob, told Corriere della Sera newspaper.
In some areas, like the one Galantino comes from, the Church has taken a strong stand against organized crime.
But many members of organized crime groups in Italy see themselves as part of a religious, cult-like group and regularly take part in sacraments.
On Wednesday, during a religious procession of a statue of Saint Mary in the southern Italian town of Oppido Mamertina, parishioners paused before the home of the town's elderly mafia boss as a sign of respect, triggering an impassioned debate in the Italian media.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Andrew Heavens)