Pope Francis: Hell-denier? No.

Avatar

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: New Catholic school leaders rise to the challenge

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

There’s never been a more exciting time than now to be a student at one of Denver’s Catholic schools.

With robust curriculums that form the whole person and a variety of educational models to choose from, Catholic schools are a great option for parents seeking more for their children’s education.

Even more exciting are the various education professionals who are stepping into leadership roles beginning this new school year. These are individuals are who are passionate about Catholic education and even more passionate about partnering with parents, the primary educators of their children, to help lead their kids to an encounter with Jesus Christ.

The nine new leaders featured below bring a wealth of experience to their new roles, and they are each excited to rise to the challenge of making Denver’s Catholic schools the absolute best they can be at helping to form students into authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.

Andrew Beach
Our Lady of Lourdes (South Campus)

Andrew Beach credits much of his call to the teaching vocation to his parents, who are both teachers themselves. Beach studied economics and philosophy at University of Colorado Boulder and then went on to pursue a master’s degree in theology from the Augustine Institute. “From the second I heard about Lourdes and all that us going on here in terms of its classical education and strong Catholic identity and culture, I knew it was the school where I wanted to teach,” Beach said. As a result of the school’s expansion, Beach is now the Head of School for Lourdes’ South Campus. In his new role, he hopes to assist in guiding Lourdes toward academic excellence, but more importantly, he hopes to foster an authentic and strong Catholic identity within the schools.

Robert Bernardin
St. Bernadette

When St. Bernadette announced they were pausing their operations last year, Robert Bernardin saw it as an opportunity. Having previously worked at Annunciation Catholic School, an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school, Bernardin became very excited when St. Bernadette decided to re-launch as an EL school, joining Annunciation and St. Rose of Lima as the only Catholic EL schools in the nation. “I was immediately drawn to St. Bernadette because I believe deeply in the power of EL to elevate Catholic schools,” Bernardin said. Bernardin believes that Catholic education is transformative, and as principal of the re-launched St. Bernadette, he is “keen to expand our view of what is possible in Catholic schools, to serve as a model of what Catholic schools can be and inspire others to follow our lead.”

Kellie Carroll
Bishop Machebeuf High School

For Kellie Carroll, being at Bishop Machebeuf High School is a bit of a homecoming for her. She’s been in education for 20 years, starting at St. Pius X in Aurora and then moving on to teach for several public schools before finding her way back to the Archdiocese of Denver. However, she was also educated in Catholic schools growing up and graduated from Mullen High School. “This is a system that certainly raised me and had a profoundly positive impact on both my academic and faith formation,” Carroll said. As the interim principal at Bishop Machebeuf High School, Carroll hopes to help prepare students for life outside of the school walls. “I firmly believe a solid formation in the faith and a rigorous academic setting will prepare them for the adventure and challenges life will bring,” she said.

Gretchen DeWolfe
St. Thomas More

Gretchen DeWolfe has taught 5th grade at St. Thomas More Catholic School for the last five years and will now be entering her sixth year as the school’s new principal. “In my new role as principal, it is my duty to support parents, the primary educators, in forming their children through encounters with Christ, which will in turn deepen that beautiful and essential relationship,” DeWolfe said. Being in Catholic education is more than simply a job for DeWolfe — it is a calling. “My heart has always been in Catholic schools … It is an amazing gift to be able to teach and live the Catholic faith on a daily basis,” she said. “[This] is what I have chosen to dedicate my life to — teaching and living the truths that Jesus taught us.”

Dana Ellis
St. Louis (Louisville)

Dana Ellis worked in Jefferson County Public Schools for over 30 years, 18 of which were as a principal, and then went on to work in Boulder Valley Public Schools for several more years until she retired. After “walking around in the desert” for a couple of years, Ellis now finds herself as the new principal of St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville. As she embarks on this new foray into Catholic education, Ellis is confident that God will continue to lead St. Louis down the path it needs to go in order to continue forming authentic disciples of Jesus Christ. “I do know that God will lead the way, but I don’t know what that way is going to be yet,” Ellis said.

Eric Hoffer
Christ the King

Before starting his career in Catholic education, Eric Hoffer had plans to complete a degree in political science and attend law school. “However, God had other plans in place for me,” Hoffer said. He converted to Catholicism while in college, and after graduation, volunteered with the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, where he “fell in love with education and my faith.” He’s had a 16-year career in various roles in education thus far, and recently completed his graduate degree in Educational Leadership at the University of Notre Dame. He feels fortunate to lead Christ the King Catholic School as principal. “If I am able to help each of our students understand that they are beloved children of God and that he has a beautiful plan for their lives, then I will have made a valuable contribution to our archdiocese,” Hoffer said.

Steve Vaughn
St. Therese

Steve Vaughn began his career as a teacher teaching 4th, 5th and 6th grade at a few different Catholic schools in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Over the last 10 years, he’s been a teacher and assistant principal at a Denver charter school, but he’s now answering a call from the Lord to return to Catholic education. “Having worked in both Catholic and public schools, I can say that Catholic schools truly provide an education for the whole child,” Vaughn said. Speaking for his new role as principal at St. Therese, Vaughn shared, “Our goal at St. Therese is to create saints! It’s an honor and blessing to be tasked with fulfilling this mission at my school. This is exciting, challenging work, but there’s no other work I’d rather be doing.”

Tamara Whitehouse
Our Lady of Lourdes (North Campus)

Tamara Whitehouse has worked in both public and Catholic schools for over 20 years. More recently, she has also served as an instructor for the Denver Catholic Biblical School. Her transition from public schools to Catholic schools came after taking time to stay at home with her children when they were young. “We discerned God’s call to send our children to Catholic schools, and then my own deepening faith and desire to instill a love for God in young people led me to follow after them when I returned to work,” Whitehouse said. As she begins her new role as the Head of School for Lourdes’ North Campus, Whitehouse hopes to “support families in the formation of their children to know, love and serve God, and this contribute to the renewal of Catholic culture that is so desperately needed today.

Father Stefan Zarnay
St. Mary’s (Littleton)

Born in the Slovak Republic and ordained a priest just last year, Father Stefan Zarnay is part of the Disciples of Jesus Christ, the religoous order that oversees St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Littleton. He met them when he was studying for his Masters Degree at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Rome, Italy. He has previously served as Chaplain of the Stella Maris — La Gavia Catholic School in Madrid. In addition to being the interim principal of St. Mary’s, he is also the school’s chaplain and the parish’s new parochial vicar.

Ann Zeches
St. Catherine of Siena

For Ann Zeches, education is a second career. Prior to becoming a mom, Zeches was the assistant general manager of a resort. It was when her children were in school that the seed for Zeches’ career in Catholic education was planted. “What I thought teaching entailed, and the reality are two different things,” Zeches said. “Education is the toughest job I have ever experienced, but the one with incredible rewards. Education has become my passion.” In her new role as principal at St. Catherine of Siena, her goal is simple: “I am forming students to know the ‘truth’ of our faith and how to infuse it into their lives. Ultimately, then, they will be well-educated disciples of Christ longing to meet our Lord in heaven while making their community a place filled with the Spirit.”