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: Centro San Juan Diego to celebrate its ‘Quinceañera’ Oct. 11

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

“The more prosperous nations are obliged… to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (CCC 2241).

With the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in mind and the vision and mission of answering the Church’s call to welcome and aid the newcomers, Archbishop Charles Chaput and Monsignor José Gómez created Centro San Juan Diego in 2003.

Fifteen years later, the mission of Centro continues more urgently than ever. On Oct. 11, the institution will celebrate its 15th birthday — or as it’s called among Hispanics, its ‘Quinceañera.’

Centro was created to meet the urgent needs of the growing Hispanic immigrant community in Colorado after the arrival of what was considered one of the largest wave of immigrants to the U.S. between 1996 and 2004, explained Juan Carlos Reyes, Executive Director of Centro San Juan Diego.

“The creation of Centro was necessary, not only so Catholic immigrants could find the Church welcoming them, opening its doors and helping them to actively participate in the Church’s life, but also, for the immigrant community in general, regardless of their faith, to offer them an area of social work,” Reyes explained.

Since its creation, Centro has helped thousands of people. In fact, nearly 5,000 Hispanics reach out to Centro every year to receive faith formation and educational services. With the Pastoral Institute, the family, children’s and young adult’s ministries, and the educational and leadership programs, Centro has become the main resource center for both long-term residents and newcomers in Colorado.

At Centro, students start by learning English, preparing for their citizenship, and/or becoming entrepreneurs by attending small business classes.

Twice a month, Centro offers a legal night (Noche Legal) to provide legal advice from lawyers in different areas of law to those seeking help but with no financial means to do so.  During tax season, Centro provides tax preparation services at a low cost. Additionally, a tax preparer certification is available for those who want to pursue it.

“One of the programs that has given us more recognition is the partnership Centro has with Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), a university in Puebla, Mexico that offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Spanish that are valid in both countries,” said Reyes. This partnership began in 2012 and provides online education at low cost to any Spanish-speaking individual, regardless of their citizenship status.

A positive effect on families

One of the most touching testimonies shared by a Centro student came from Monica Chavez, who was the first graduate from the UPAEP program.

“During her graduation ceremony speech, she paused and, addressing her children, she said, ‘There are no excuses now [for them not to graduate],’” recalled Reyes. “The services at Centro are offered to help families, to help parents be the best parents they can be. The education this student [received] has had a direct effect on her life. We are almost certain that her children will graduate [due to her mother’s example].”

Centro San Juan Diego’s mission is continuous. Earlier this year, the “Sister Alicia V. Cuarón Education Fund” was created to honor the legacy of Sister Alicia V. Cuarón, the founder of the previous family services program and a lifelong advocate for Hispanic issues in business, leadership and empowerment. The education fund supports the family services and programs at Centro.

“This education fund is an effective tool to respond to the Church’s call to help immigrants, regardless of their ethnicity or economic status,” stated Reyes.

The future of Centro

When asked about Centro’s future, Reyes enthusiastically responded that among its promising plans, there is a great opportunity “to establish regional offices on the Eastern Plains and Western slope to reach the immigrant community in those areas.” They also plan “to extend vocation and education courses through the archdiocese and create new programs that will address the growing and diverse needs of immigrants, such as education, leadership development, job training and readiness, while ensuring easy access to its award-winning services.”