Pope Francis: Hell-denier? No.

So the Pope has a friend — a rather colorful friend — with whom he likes to chat periodically.  This friend, unfortunately, is also a journalist.  A 94-year-old journalist who prides himself on never recording conversations or taking notes, and instead “reconstructs” conversations after the fact.  Which all may have been well and good when he was in his 40’s.  But half a century later, it’s probably time for him to hang up this particular parlor trick.

Lest he get someone in trouble.

I don’t know what the Holy Father actually said in his most recent conversation with Eugenio Scalfari.  But Scalfari’s reconstruction has the Supreme Roman Pontiff strongly implying that hell does not in fact exist — that the souls of the damned simply cease to exist at the moment of death.

This, as one might imagine, is causing quite a few headaches at the Vatican. I have no idea what the Holy Father said in this particular conversation, and I have no interest in trying to figure it out.  I would much rather stick with what I know, based on multiple on-the-record, actual, verifiable, don’t-need-to-be-walked-back-by-the-Vatican statements that Pope Francis has made over the years.

And that is this:  The Holy Father does indeed believe what the Church teaches about death, judgment, heaven and hell.  What’s more, he has made some pretty profound statements on the subject.

I was particularly struck by his answer, a few years ago, to a young woman who asked him how Hell could exist if God forgives everyone.  He acknowledged it was a good question, told her about the fall of Satan, and then said, “He wanted God’s place.  And God wanted to forgive him, but he said, ‘I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!'”

He went on to say “This is hell.  It is telling God, ‘You take care of yourself because I’ll take care of myself.’ They don’t send you to hell, you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell.”

This is the Church’s teaching, beautifully stated.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” (CCC 1033)

God created us for Himself.  But we need to freely choose him, or our union with him would be meaningless — a form of captivity.  If we are free, our options must be meaningful, not just illusions.  And in this life, we can choose to follow him or not.

Hell is quite simply the consequence of choosing “not God” in this life.  It’s not a “place” we can locate on a map, any more than Heaven is.  It is a state of being. I have no idea what it is like, except that it is utterly separated from God.  God is the source of all good.  God is compassion.  God is love. God is beauty. That lack of beauty, love and compassion and every other good, is Hell.

It couldn’t be pleasant.

God doesn’t “send” us to Hell.  We choose it, by the way we live our lives.  I don’t know what that final scene looks like, but I have often heard speculation that, to the condemned soul, the possibility of spending eternity beholding the face of the God they rejected is so painful that they themselves, in that moment, choose exclusion from His presence. God didn’t choose it for them.  They did.

I find that oddly comforting.

I have sometimes been amused to find that some of the same people who condemn the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality in youth sports, also subscribe to an “everybody goes to Heaven” theology of the afterlife.  Do we really believe that God is the “everybody gets a trophy”-guy?  That he put us here on this earth with no goal beyond doing whatever we like for the better part of a century or so?  And that, at the end, it makes no difference how we have behaved, or whether we lived his love or not?    That our “reward” is actually meaningless?  That all — good and evil and in-between — are equally rewarded for how we used our time here?

I don’t believe that.  I believe he placed us here with a goal, and that goal is him.  And we either make it or we don’t.

Fortunately, I have it on pretty good authority that Pope Francis believes the same thing.

COMING UP: Juan Carlos Reyes, Director of Centro San Juan Diego, has been called to the Father’s House

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A happy, hardworking man dedicated to evangelization and to Hispanic immigrants: With these words, friends and coworkers remember Juan Carlos Reyes, who passed away March 20 after fighting a grave illness over the previous two months. He was 33.

Juan Carlos was born in Michoacán, Mex., on Dec. 28, 1985. He arrived to the United States at a young age, completed his secondary studies and later a bachelor’s degree in religious sciences thanks to an agreement between the Anáhuac University in Mexico City and Centro San Juan Diego. He was also a student at the Denver Catholic Biblical School under the Lay Division of St. John Vianney Seminary.

As a teen, he joined a youth group at St. Anthony of Padua in Denver and attended Centro San Juan Diego for various classes and trainings for pastoral workers.

He began working at Centro San Juan Diego in 2012, was promoted to Director of the Family Services in 2015 and became director of the organization in March 2018. As director, he led important programs that sought care for immigrants and formation for pastoral workers. Juan Carlos was one of the initiators of the agreement between Centro San Juan Diego and Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP) in Mexico, making it possible for many immigrants to obtain a bachelor’s degree in their native language valid in the United States.

“To talk about Centro San Juan Diego is, in a sense, to talk about my own life. I would not be here if it were not for Centro San Juan Diego’s support. I saw in CSJD an active Church that reached out to me,” Juan Carlos told the Denver Catholic in October 2018. He was also a delegate for the V National Encuentro in Grapevine, Texas, this past September.

Besides working for the Archdiocese, Juan Carlos conducted a ministry with his brother titled Agua y Sangre” (Blood and Water), in which they commented on the daily Mass readings via YouTube, reaching up to 100,000 views daily.

One of his closest friends was Alfonso Lara, Director of Hispanic Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Denver. “Many of us witnessed how Juan Carlos grew and matured as a man, as a Christian, as a Catholic, as a leader,” he said. “His potential, spirit and commitment were always attractive. I always admired his youthfulness, dedication and love for people. He emerged from the Hispanic community and later served and poured out his heart to them.”

Luis Soto, Director of Parish Implementation and Hispanic Outreach for the Augustine Institute and former Director of Centro San Juan Diego, met Juan Carlos when he was 15 years old, and remembers him as a “dynamic, funny [young man] with many ideas and a great desire to serve. He was a member of a family that was committed to the faith. He was restless and had a great desire to learn in order to serve better. He would register for any program we started.”

Abram León, Lay Ecclesial Movement Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver, remembers Juan Carlos as “a great human being” who “was proud to be a father.” Deacon Rubén Durán, the archdiocese’s Hispanic Family Ministry Specialist, also remembers him as “a man of God, of deep faith. He evangelized with words and actions.”

Juan Carlos was a loving husband to his wife of more than 10 years and a proud father of three sons.