"Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire  prepared for the Devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41)

Those who don't care for the poor, who refuse to love and who commit sin will be punished - frightening, isn't it!

An Italian religious studies teacher, Cristina Vai, 55, who was recently suspended after discussing the Last Judgement with her pupils, has received a letter of support from the Pope. After describing the incident in a letter sent to Pope Benedict XVI, Mrs Vai received a reply from Mgr Peter Wells, who wrote to her on behalf of the Holy Father. In his letter, Mgr Wells, who heads the English language section at the Vatican's Secretariat of State, assured the teacher that the Pope thanked her "with all his heart" for her "faithful gesture" and for the sentiments that had inspired her.

According to the Daily Mail, Cristina Vai was suspended from her post after several parents complained that their children had come home frightened after she had taught that evil actions never go unpunished. One young child in particular had been so scared by some passages from the Book of Revelation that she had gone home sobbing. In response, Stefano Mari, headmaster of the Bombicci primary school in Bologna, suspended the teacher - who teaches five and six-year-olds and who also has over 30 years' experience in the profession.

Mrs Vai was so shocked at being punished for actually doing something good that she wrote to Fabio Garagnani, her local MP, as well as to Pope Benedict XVI. Fabio Garganani assured the teacher of his backing and has expressed his hope that she will be reinstated. After hearing about the letter from the Vatican, Mr Garagnani also said: "I hope that with this letter from the Pope matters will be cleared up and it will become obvious that her lesson was in perfect accordance with Catholic teaching." In the letter written by Monsignor Wells, the Holy Father sent her "from his heart an Apostolic Blessing which he also extends in particular to the young children in the class."

Cristina Vai has been greatly comforted by the letter from a member of the Holy See's Secretariat of State - writing to her in the Pope's name. She is reported to have said: "This is such a wonderful letter and it really puts my heart at ease - now I am convinced that nothing bad will happen to me." She also described the events that led to her suspension, saying: "I was accused of upsetting the children by explaining to them good versus evil and how evil is always punished but that is what is in the Bible there is good and bad in every story and this was not a fairytale." Mrs Vai also added: "The children needed to hear about good and evil so they know the right choice to make."

Of course, I have no idea what actually happened during the lesson that ended in Mrs Vai's suspension. I also note that the Pope extended his blessing to the children in her class, which means that it would be wrong to view Mgr Peter Well's letter on behalf of the Holy Father as explicit support for the teacher alone. Although what she taught - that evil will be punished by God - is in line with Catholic teaching, one wonders whether Mrs Vai might have been a bit too enthusiastic in the way she described the Last Judgement? Are five-year-olds old enough to deal with some of the more terrifying realities of life?

Needless to say, it's not good that a small child ended up in tears after the lesson - and will probably be used as ammunition by those who claim that Christian teaching on the the consequences of sin is tantamount to "child abuse". Having said that, though, one wonders whether or not we have been far too indulgent with our children in recent years? It really does seem that many young people in the West have the sense that they can do no wrong. If this is the case, Cristina Vai's lesson on the consequences of evil will have been of immense benefit to her class, even if it was upsetting for some children to hear for the first time. For that reason, then, we should all join the Holy Father in expressing our gratitude for Cristina Vai's "faithful sentiments" - praying for her as well as the children whom she teaches.

Spero columnist Dylan Parry writes from England. He blogs at ReluctantSinner.



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